Ethel Nelson: Dialogue with an Adventist pathologist and writer

Ethel Nelson’s living room is surrounded with bookshelves containing everything from Time to National Geographic to Adventist Review and books on Chinese characters, gardening, and religion. Balanced and well-read, Dr. Nelson has experienced much in her life from atheism and evolutionism to pathology and mission service.

Although officially retired, Dr. Nelson keeps busy lecturing on Chinese characters and health issues. When she’s not traveling, she enjoys relaxing at her home in Dunlap, Tennessee, with her husband of 50 years, Roger.

Born in California, Dr. Nelson grew up in San Diego and attended San Diego State University. She was an atheist and a firm believer in evolution. After two years at the university, she discovered her atheistic beliefs were not satisfying after all, and soon began to search for other alternatives. At the urging of an Adventist physician, she switched to Pacific Union College. There she was baptized. Later she enrolled at Loma Linda University to study medicine. In her senior year, she met and later married Roger. Together they have served 21 years as medical missionaries in Thailand. They have three children—a daughter and two sons, and six grandchildren.

Dr. Nelson, in addition to her medical publications, has also put together The Century 21 Cookbook, also titled as 375 Meatless Recipes, which has sold more than 150,000 copies around the world. She also wrote Eight Secrets of Health to promote a healthier lifestyle among Asians. Her interest in Chinese has led her to explore their most ancient characters. Her latest work, Genesis and the Mystery Confucius Couldn’t Solve (Concordia, 1994), discusses the Chinese “genesis” including Creation, the entrance of sin, and the sacrificial system, all found in their ancient pictographic characters.

Dr. Nelson, shall we begin with a little about your atheistic background?

My parents seldom went to church, and religion had little role in our family. As a child, I did go to Sunday school, but as a teenager I lost interest in that. I went to public school where evolution was taught and where Christian values were at a minimum. With that background, I really had no concept of God. It was easy to become an atheist, and so I was until the second year of my college studies. Evolution was my accepted belief about origins. But then providentially I met a Christian doctor. That meeting turned my life around. He invited me to attend some evangelistic meetings. These meetings began with a study of Creation and evolution, and for the first time I was challenged to think again, and look at Creation as a viable alternative for origins.These meetings also introduced me to Bible prophecy. My mindset was beginning to change.

Where did that change lead you?

The doctor who invited me to attend the evangelistic meetings also encouraged me to attend Loma Linda University to study medicine, but first to go to an Adventist college. He suggested Pacific Union College. There I had to take three Bible courses to finish qualifications for medical school. I was already doubling up on other classes, taking a very heavy load of 20 hours. I had never taken a Bible class and wasn’t used to memorizing Bible verses, but for every class I had to memorize two to three verses. The Lord really blessed me and after just a few days, I could quickly memorize them all. And I remember those verses even today—good fundamental Adventist verses. While attending Pacific Union College I was baptized.

How did your family and friends react to your conversion?

I sort of dreaded letting my folks know I had decided to be baptized. I didn’t know what their reaction would be. I knew they didn’t want me to be a Seventh-day Adventist. But they accepted it. It didn’t make any difference to my friends. I let them know what I believed, and they were still my friends.

How did your husband and you decide to become missionaries?

We first had a call to go to Thailand, but we hadn’t finished our residencies so we said, “Maybe next year.” At the end of the year, we were invited to Penang Hospital in Malaysia. So I wrote and told our friend in Bangkok that we were going to Penang. She wired back and said, “Wait on Penang call...Bangkok call coming.” Soon, the formal invitation came and we went to Bangkok. They desperately needed help. Thailand was our home for the next 17 years. There our three children were born. They loved the country and its people. But we had to come back to the U.S. so our children could attend college. After 10 years, we went back to another four-year term.

What was your work in Bangkok?

Forty years ago medicine was not as specialized as now, but then we were on the cutting edge. We needed trained medical technicians, so I started a medical laboratory program—the first in Thailand. It was an era when local training was just not available. Thai doctors were going abroad. The hospital, Bangkok Adventist Hospital, was recognized locally as the best in Thailand at that time. There I gave the lab lectures and initially practiced general medicine, obstetrics, and gynecology.

Varied opportunities came my way. Once an epidemic of dengue hemorrhagic fever hit the children in Bangkok. That gave me an opportunity to do hematology studies and research, and led to the publication of seven research papers on the subject in American medical journals. I had done many bone marrow samples on children and adults and found that the virus absolutely wipes out the bone marrow for a day or two. If you examine it during that time, the marrow looks like aplastic anemia; there’s nothing there. Dengue is also called “break-bone fever,” with the the worst kind of flu symptoms because of the aching in your bones—doubtless due to the packing of cells in the recovering marrow. There’s also bleeding because of the platelets being wiped out. It was really fatal in children, especially during that first epidemic but that’s hardly the case today.

Any particular reason why you chose to specialize in pathology?

By default, perhaps. While in medical school I really loved pathology. It’s like detective work. I was always interested in research, but never dreamed I would go into that. I planned on obstetrics and gynecology. At that time, World War II had just ended and doctors who served the armed forces were coming home, and they had priority in residency programs. So my application for residency in obstetrics was refused. I figured pathology was an excellent background for any other field in medicine; so I thought I’d take a year of pathology and apply it toward my residency in obstetrics. After a year, I thought I had a good chance, but still wasn’t accepted, so I took another year of pathology. The next year I was asked if I wanted a residency in obstetrics and I said, “No, I think I’ll be a pathologist.” I really believe the Lord directed me because there was a great need in Bangkok for pathologists.

What does pathology involve?

When I was in medical school, pathology was divided into two parts: clinical laboratory diagnosis and anatomical pathology. There are more areas now. Back then we didn’t have fancy machines to do all the work. It was more chemistry, bacteriology, parasitology, and more microscope-oriented. Anatomical pathology is divided into autopsy and surgery. Every tissue removed must go through pathology. In the lab/clinical area I enjoyed hematology, the study of blood diseases, the most. I also had more patient contact in that area.

Moving to another area, how did you become interested in researching the Chinese characters?

About 25 years ago I came across a book entitled Genesis and the Chinese by Pastor Kang.The title brought an instant response within me: There can be no connection! Out of curiosity, I opened and read the book. I discovered that the Chinese characters are pictograms that tell the story of Creation. I began using these to give Bible studies to students in Bangkok. When we came back to the United States, I put it away for three or four years. Then I wrote to Pastor Kang in Singapore, and asked him, “Would you be interested in updating your book and working on another one?” He was very excited, and we worked one year by correspondence. Then I went to visit him in Singapore. The result was Discovery of Genesis (Concordia, 1979).

What did you discover?

We researched ancient Chinese characters and discovered many more in addition to the ones Kang had originally found. I found more ancient character forms from the Shang dynasty, dating to 1700 B.C. For example, the character of Shang Di: Many recitations have come down through the centuries relating how Shang Di was creator god who spoke things into existence. The ancient Chinese characters show the Creation story with Adam, Eve, the Garden of Eden, and the two trees. One character, for example, has a sheep, representing the lamb of God, drawn over the symbol for “me” or “I.” A hand in the “me” symbol is holding a weapon. This character means righteousness. It’s written differently now, but the meanings are still the same.

With the passage of time, the Chinese forgot these roots and began ancestor worship. Buddhism was introduced from India, and an indigenous religion, Taoism, developed. Many people don’t realize it, but Confucius was a believer in Shang Di. His followers, however, began to worship him instead. They’ve forgotten their original beliefs, and they haven’t had it pointed out to them, either. The Chinese consider Christianity a foreigners’ religion, but within their characters is the story of who God is. These Chinese characters can be used as a bridge to understand the Bible and Christianity.

I recently learned that a Chinese man in Colorado Springs was going to Taiwan with a group of professional people for disaster relief training, and he thought of Discovery of Genesis as a way to introduce Christianity to Taiwan. As a result, 25 of the 153 Chinese professionals, including medical doctors and engineers, gave their lives to Jesus. They recognized that Christianity had been there all along. Evangelists in Japan and Korea are also interested in this. They can now relate Christianity to the Chinese characters which they also use and show their people that Christianity is not a foreign religion.Interview by

Christina Hogan. Christina Hogan is a senior English and journalism major at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee. She is also the co-editor of the student newspaper, Southern Accent. Dr. Nelson’s address: HCR 65 Box 580; Dunlap, TN 37327; U.S.A.