Chiang Mai: McKean Senior Center

McKean Senior Center, formerly known as the McKean Rehabilitation Center, is one of our favourite places in Chiang Mai. It is also one of the most under-visited places. Local people know this former leprosy colony simply as McKean. On any given day you might meet groups of cyclists pedalling through this park: it has featured on the itinerary of bicycle tours for many years. Apart from the cyclists, very few tourists visit this beautiful compound with its 100-year old trees. If there is one place that screams for an official heritage it is McKean. If you ride your bicycle on the three shrouded lanes you will the temperature drop a couple of degrees. The giant trees have this cooling effect. It is wonderful. There are very few vehicles in McKean so it is very safe for cyclists and pedestrians.

four cyclists in front of Thaw Chapel
Cyclist in front of Thaw Chapel

The McKean Senior Center is located on the Ping River south of Chiang Mai. It is owned and run by the Presbyterian Mission. In 1908 the Minister of the Interior of Siam, the High Commissioner of Chiang Mai, and Prince Intawaroros Suriyawong of Chiang Mai, gave Dr James McKean permission to establish a leprosy colony. They granted the Presbyterian Mission 66 hectares on the southern half of Koh Klang (“Middle Island”). This was the first time that the government had ever set aside land for people with leprosy.

James McKean arrives in Chiang Mai

James W McKean was born in Iowa, USA, on 10th March 1860. He studied medicine at Bellevue Hospital Medical College, graduating in 1882. With his wife Laura Bell, he arrived in Chiang Mai in 1889, a city which was then home to around 20,000 people. Here they joined an American medical missionary who had arrived in the region earlier, Rev McGilvary and his Siamese assistant Chantah Indravude. Together they ran a dispensary, which was later to become known as the “ American Hospital”. Dr McKean became superintendent of the Hospital in 1901.

Foundations of Chiang Mai Leprosarium

By 1908, there was an embryonic leprosarium, consisting of three cottages and six adults. Over the next twenty years, under the care of Dr McKean and Chantah Indravude, the leprosarium would grow dramatically. He viewed leprosy as infectious and incurable. Dr McKean recognized that the disease was not hereditary. He also understood it was infectious only to some individuals while the rest were immune to the disease. It was transmitted only by “prolonged and intimate contact.” He believed that quarantine was an effective control measure that had divine justification in the laws of Moses.

Colonial style building
McLanahan Memorial Hall

Hugh McKean joins his father

From 1922 to 1930, he was joined by his son, J. Hugh McKean. Hugh acted as “associate superintendent” of the leprosarium and business manager for the Chiang Mai hospitals (American and McCormick) and four dispensaries. In 1927 the King of Siam bestowed the “Insignia of Knight of the Order of the Crown” upon Dr McKean in appreciation for his work among the leprosy sufferers in Siam.

As the population at the leprosarium boomed, Dr McKean looked overseas for funds. He made films about the life of leprosy victims and the new life which they began upon entering the leprosy asylum. He retired from the mission in Chiang Mai on March 10, 1931. By the end of his career, he had made substantial contributions to public health in Chiang Mai.

He had helped to build up the American Hospital (and directed it for 24 years). He had also established a vaccine laboratory and the leprosy asylum, as well as 4 churches and over 45 leprosy villages.

Renaming the Leper Asylum

At the annual mission meeting of 1948, it was proposed to rename the Chiang Mai Leper Asylum as the “McKean Leper Home”.  For many years the institution existed as McKean Rehabilitation Center and Hospital, a service branch of the Church of Christ in Thailand. Nowadays the Centre calls itself McKean Senior Center. It offers retirement living and multi-level senior-care services in a friendly and serene garden setting. James McKean died peacefully in America aged 88, on 9th February 1949.

McKean is a Chiang Mai Heritage

We consider McKean Senior Center a Chiang Mai Heritage that should be protected. We will encourage people to visit McKean, either by bicycle or by vehicle. There are some beautiful old and unique buildings such as the Thaw Chapel and the McLanahan Memorial Hall. The compound of McKean has not changed that much in the past 100 years. It is like a journey back in time.

The small museum is worthwhile. It shows photographs of McKean’s history and of the visit of King Rama VII in 1927. The centre is the residence of physically handicapped people who handicraft small souvenirs. A small souvenir shop sells these souvenirs. Sunday is not the best day to visit McKean: the museum, workshop and souvenir shop are all closed on a Sunday.

Old church with bicycle parked in front
McKean church and bike