Michael Shadid, the Marjeyoun socialist who dedicated his life to the poor
Dr. Shadid has treated the needy and fought prejudice against the Lebanese, leaving an undeniable trace in the history of Lebanese emigration to the United States.
Born in Jdeidet Marjeyoun in 1882 to a large, impoverished family, he lost nine of his siblings due to the “summer complaint” (dysentery that particularly afflicted children and infants, and was caused by contaminated food and poor hygiene). That this tragedy could have been avoided had his family been able to afford to pay a doctor, scarred him for life. After settling in Beirut with his brother, sister, and mother, the young Michael received a scholarship to attend the Syrian Protestant College (which would become later the American University of Beirut). Here, he realized that the United States would be the only place for him to study medicine. He moved with his family in 1898, and worked as a peddler for the next four years so he could save enough money to pay his way through medical school. In 1903, the ambitious young man had enough money to attend medical school at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. There, Shadid was exposed to socialist ideas, and developed a sensitivity to racial and social injustices. This movement gave him the purpose and direction that would be so important to his later roles in activism and politics.
In 1908, after graduating from medical school, he became an active member of the Socialist Party. He started touring Middle America, where he gave speeches in schools. He often received threats from those who saw him as a “socialist agitator”. Despite everything, he would practice as a doctor in Carter, Oklahoma for twenty years.
A co-operative hospital
The reality of what he witnessed in the rural areas of America shattered him. At the time, farmers did not have access to affordable and decent quality healthcare. Some even sacrificed their crops, livestock, or home in order to pay medical bills. On top of this, Shadid realized the extent of corruption and the general ignorance among the local doctors themselves, noticing that his colleagues would often send their patients for unnecessary operations in order to collect a fee, or because they simply did not have the knowledge needed to properly treat their patients.
In 1929, the philanthropist doctor suggested building a co-operative hospital in Elk City, which would be patients-owned and ran: the farmers would finally care for themselves. His long term goal was to make it a free hospital. Construction started in 1930. Shadid tried to get his local colleagues involved in the project, but was met with fierce resistance. He had to wait until 1931 for his hospital to finally open.
The success of this humanitarian endeavor was reported by the newspapers of the time, and Dr. Shadid took to the road throughout the 1930s and 40s to speak about the importance of co-operative medicine. He lectured at universities and hospitals across the United States and Canada. He also published his autobiography entitled “A Doctor for the People”, which advocated for the co-operative medicine movement. The book would surely still resonate today, health care issues still being an important concern in the United States...
An abortive political career
In 1940, Shadid decided to run for Congress as a New Deal Democrat. A victim of defamation and racist rumors, he was defeated at the ballot box. But this setback did not dampen his determination at all. He continued to advocate for co-operative medicine throughout the 1940s and 50s. In 1946, he created the Co-operative Health Federation for America, of which he was elected president, and his son, Fred, took over as the medical director of the community hospital.
Home was never far from Shadid’s thoughts and the doctor dedicated his talent and know-how to founding a hospital in his native village of Marjeyoun. The hospital served the area until the 1950s.
The researcher Caroline Muglia, and Akram Khater, director of the Moise Khayrallah Center, believe that there is so much to learn from the story of Michael Shadid. “His story is often told from the perspective of the health care profession, and little mention is given of his immigrant background. Most Lebanese conferences about the diaspora are, with rare exceptions, dedicated to successful businessmen,” explains Akram Khater to L’Orient-Le Jour. “And the topics are only related to money. Although the achievements of these people are certainly commendable, they shouldn’t be the only criteria for talking about their successes. We must show more clearly the cultural productions of writers, artists, filmmakers, who enrich our lives in Lebanon and in the diaspora. We should especially highlight those, who in all modesty, work hard to earn a living, and build a family and a community. We need to learn more about the challenges (physical, emotional, etc.…) facing the immigrants, and about their small contributions. It is only then that we would be able to fully understand Lebanese immigration,” he said.
This socialist doctor from Marjeyoun is a shining example. “Michael Shadid spent his life fighting for social justice,” said Muglia. “We will do well to follow his example, especially in Lebanon, where 37% of the population lives below the poverty line. We cannot pretend as if nothing is happening, when others are hungry, when they are lacking the most basic medical care.”
History and Diaspora is offered in collaboration with the Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies. For more information on this center, visit: https://lebanesestudies.ncsu.edu
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(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le jour on the 20th of May)