A Mellon from Pittsburgh Gives His Life and Fortune to Help the Poor of Haiti
updated 04/28/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 04/28/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT
In a place where infant mortality is nearly 50 percent, Hôpital Albert Schweitzer is as good as a miracle, and in an age of few heroes, William Larimer Mellon Jr. is certifiably one. A grandnephew of robber baron Andrew Mellon and son of the co-founder and chairman of the board of Gulf Oil Corp., he was born into a vast banking, coal, petroleum, steel and railroad fortune (the Mellon family holdings are estimated at $6 billion, $5 billion more than the Rockefellers'). But in 1947, at the age of 37, Larry Mellon reappraised his birthright. Inspired by a magazine article on Albert Schweitzer, he decided to go to medical school. After graduation, using $1.5 million of his inheritance and all of the income from his trust fund, he built a hospital in blighted central Haiti. Hôpital Albert Schweitzer opened on June 26, 1956, Mellon's 46th birthday, and he and his wife, Gwen, have been there ever since. "People tell me what I am doing is 'noble,' " Dr. Mellon says, "but I really know it is selfish. I have found happiness in helping people no one else was helping. It was worth everything I had to get to do this. I have sacrificed nothing. Everybody alive needs the assurance that somebody cares. That's why we're here."
The family calls him its "eccentric saint," and so he seems to be. During his 24 years in Haiti he has contracted a variety of tropical diseases, including a severe case of malaria and a bout with viral meningitis that nearly killed him. Yet neither those nor the severe heart attack he suffered 10 years ago have slowed him perceptibly. He is a familiar figure in even the remotest villages—wearing a pith helmet and head cloth and often carrying a black umbrella to protect himself against the cruel sun, which has already caused a treatable case of skin cancer on his weathered face. On his rounds at the hospital—whether soothing frightened children, consulting with fellow doctors or simply holding the hands that reach out to grasp his—Mellon seems as attentive as a man half his age, and far more willing. He performs the hospital's humblest chores—wiping up vomit and excrement from the floor, fishing banana peels from clogged toilets—tasks his native nurses' aides think are beneath their dignity. "There aren't many Haitians who demonstrate as much love for Haitians as Dr. Mellon does," says the hospital's medical director, Dr. Mueller Gamier. "Some guys would give you the money but would fly around in helicopters and spend every other month in the States. Dr. Mellon feels it would be an insult to lead a life too distant from that of the people."
His medical success in the hospital's 158-square-mile district has been remarkable. Over the years he has established four satellite clinics and a task force of immunization teams on horseback to penetrate remote areas. Inoculating as many as 15,000 people a month, the program has virtually eradicated tetanus in newborn infants, decreased the TB mortality rate by 90 percent and produced encouraging reductions in common tropical diseases. His best efforts in preventive medicine, however, are often defeated by the country's poverty. The average Haitian's income is $100 a year and, despite nutrition-education programs, malnutrition remains epidemic. "As times have gotten harder and the dollar has slipped, we've been rehabilitating fewer," Mellon admits. "You can be a Ph.D. in nutrition, but if you're poor enough you're still going to starve." As a result, he dispenses as much food as medicine. The hospital is currently raising 700 chickens, 16 Holsteins and 55 Charolais beef cattle. It also runs a 100-acre agricultural project. "I used to dream of sensational cures, but there are none," Mellon says. "It's just satisfying, in our small way, to alleviate pain and make people feel more kindly toward one another."
It is appallingly difficult: With only 15 doctors, the hospital treats some 1,500 patients a week. "I've had physicians stay only a day or two," Mellon says. "They say, 'Look, Doc, I can't handle it. It's like emptying the ocean with a teaspoon.' If you have that kind of attitude here, you're sunk. We pay doctors $500 a month, and that's a great screening in itself—they're either crazy or very committed." Still, Mellon has found it easier to hire medical help than people to work in the community development projects—and has consequently undertaken many of those tasks himself.
Now most of his working day is spent outside the hospital—digging latrines, drilling wells, laying pipe to bring pure water into the mud-and-wattle villages, stringing fence and teaching farmers modern agricultural methods to improve their yields. Perhaps the doctor's proudest accomplishment is a two-kilometer water pipeline that transformed 100 parched acres into flourishing gardens. "In the States it takes $5,000 a year of welfare to support one family," he says. "Here $5,000 rehabilitates a whole village for life—that's all the water line cost."
How Larry and Gwen Mellon came to forsake their privileged life to serve the poorest of the poor in Haiti is a story as extraordinary as their accomplishments. The youngest of W. L. Mellon's four children, Larry recalls feeling an early and deep-seated alienation from his class, an attitude inherited from his mother, Mary Taylor Mellon. The daughter of a Scotsman who laid asphalt sidewalks in Brooklyn, she despised ostentation, wore no jewelry and shunned society, devoting herself to her family, her church (Presbyterian) and music. "Mother was a simple girl and to be thrust into a pompous atmosphere was difficult for her," he says. "There were times when I felt ashamed to be from a family known only for wealth. I felt more at home with chambermaids than with my own group. Wealth really can't work for you. Either you get a cockeyed notion of your own importance or you get an inferiority complex. I guess that's what I had. Once I got the idea that dollars were foolish, the people chasing them seemed foolish."
Prodded by his father, however, Larry agreed to attend Princeton after prepping at Choate. He dropped out a year later, distressed by what he calls "the clubby bond salesman mentality." The bright spot in his life then was 17-year-old Grace Rowley, a working-class beauty who "seemed very inappropriate to my family." Her father made artificial limbs. "To me it was an attraction," he recalls with a smile. "I used to help the old man make rubber feet down in the cellar. I could have seen myself doing that a lot sooner than working for Gulf." When he and Grace married in 1929 they told neither set of parents. A year later the Mel-Ions resigned themselves to the relationship and planned a lavish society wedding, but someone leaked the news that the couple was already married. It caused a major scandal in the family and Pittsburgh society. The wedding was abruptly canceled, the gifts were returned and, as if to do penance, Larry was drafted into a Mellon bank as a teller.
"I rather liked the bank," he says bemusedly. "Somehow I found that more compatible than the Gulf Refining Company, where they later put me in the sales department. I'm anything but a salesman." His marriage began to sour when Grace showed signs of the very acquisitiveness and pomp he was trying to escape; she came to enjoy the social circuit as much as he disliked it. "How I hated those parties," he remembers. "I came to despise that jaded group of remittance people who lived on trust accounts. I felt a man should try to do something on his own, be a professional baseball player or a carpenter, it didn't matter what. Nobody has much respect for a kept woman and neither should they for a kept man." The birth of their son, Billy, did little to ease the strain on the marriage, and eventually Larry announced that he was "going away and going away alone." By the time they were divorced two years later, in 1938, Mellon was happily living in a "one-peg shack" as the owner of a modest cattle ranch in Arizona.
Not far away, Gwendolyn Grant Rawson, a 1934 Smith graduate, was supporting herself as a riding instructor on a dude ranch while establishing residency for a divorce. As much a renegade as Larry, she was the youngest child of an affluent construction engineer and a New York debutante. "My mother didn't know how to do a thing," she recalls, "so my father was determined that all four of us, my brother too, would learn typing, shorthand, sewing, cooking, carpentry and farming." When she earned her degree in sociology, she was offered a job among the natives of the Virgin Islands, but her fiancé, John Rawson, issued a now-or-never ultimatum. Gwen chose marriage and learned to regret it deeply. She had four children in four years, one of whom died. Her disappointment with her husband, a dabbler in real estate and law, grew. "By the time he left to go overseas in World War II, I had told him I was going to get a divorce," she says. "It took a lot of nerve because I didn't have many resources."
Her daughter, Jenny, met Mellon one day out riding and invited him to supper. "When I met Larry, I really wasn't interested in men," Gwen remembers, "but my kids just adored him, and he won my heart pretty quickly because he liked them." A few weeks later Gwen was stricken with pneumonia and came close to dying. "One day," she recalls, "he poked his head into the oxygen tent and said, 'Now, I want you to get better. It makes a difference to me.' That was a very low ebb in my life. I was getting a divorce, I was scared, I didn't know quite what I was going to do. But from that moment on, I cared whether I lived or died."
Shortly after her recovery, Larry went overseas as a spy in the Office of Strategic Services, attached to consulates in Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona and Geneva. For three years he monitored Axis ship movements, helped to smuggle downed Allied fliers across enemy lines and tried to induce German generals to defect. "Nothing spectacular," he says. "You expected to get killed if you were caught behind the lines, but you understood that." When he returned to the ranch in 1944, Mellon continued his courtship of Gwen and finally convinced her to marry him in 1946. It was not until they set a wedding date that she discovered he was extremely wealthy. "I never knew," she insists. "I mean, he lived on the ranch with one hired hand and did his own cooking half the time. There was no indication at all."
By now also a prosperous cattleman, Mellon bought the 110,000-acre Fort Rock ranch and built a spacious house overlooking a swimming pool for his new family. "I was having a good time, doing what I wanted," Larry says. "I thought I was happy and I guess I was." But he vividly recalls the November evening in 1947 when, thumbing through a copy of LIFE, he stopped at a picture of Dr. Albert Schweitzer. He paused to read the article, headlined "The Greatest Man in the World," about the physician who had set aside a brilliant career as a theologian, philosopher and musicologist in Europe to establish the Lambaréné Hospital in primitive French Equatorial Africa. The idea simmered in the back of his mind for two weeks before it took shape as a firm resolve to follow Schweitzer's example. "I remember I was surprised," Gwen says, "but I believe I said, 'I'm glad, I'd like to do it too.' I'd begun to realize that ranching wasn't a big enough life for Larry."
As a first step, Mellon wrote to Schweitzer, who replied with a nine-page letter of encouragement and advice. "I am delighted that you want to use your life for service and I have told myself it is your destiny and you will know a profound happiness in accomplishing it," Schweitzer wrote, but he warned that medical school would be difficult at Larry's age. "Most of all, don't try to pass the exams with flying colors," the letter cautioned. "Content yourself with squeaking through honorably."
The Mellons sold the ranch, moved to New Orleans and Larry crammed his premed work into 15 months at Tulane University. The next four years' struggle through Tulane Medical School turned his hair white and gave him an ulcer; he finished "honorably" in the lower half of his class. During that time Gwen earned a degree as a lab technician and scrub nurse between trips to oversee the construction of their hospital in Haiti—a site they chose in 1952 while doing thesis research on tropical leg ulcers.
The Haitian government donated a 60-acre tract and 42 houses abandoned by the Standard Fruit Company 90 miles from Port-au-Prince, and Mellon used his fortune to underwrite the hospital, its water system and generating plant. For operating expenses he pledged the income from his trust fund—$200,000 a year. The hospital has never been able to manage on that. Patients are charged $2 a day for complete treatment, including all medication and X-rays. The hospital relies on contributions to meet its annual $800,000 deficit. "The Mellon Foundation is generous with me, but intermittent," Larry says. "My brother and sisters send money at times."
Larry and Gwen's greatest worry now is the fate of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer after they die. He will be 70 this year, she 69. If they had ever hoped their children would follow in their footsteps, they do not mention it. Larry's son, Billy, died 12 years ago of an accidental drug overdose. Gwen's son Michael, 44, is a New Jersey oceanographer; Ian, 41, is a Pittsburgh professor; Jenny, 43, is married to a New York urologist. "We're just going to make sure that somebody picks up the pieces when we die," Gwen says. "We can't let our staff and all these people down."
The Mellons remain cheerfully determined, seemingly immune to despair. "I don't ever really get discouraged—I have a way around it," Larry says. "We came here to give what we could, what we have, and that's all we can do. Gwen and I both want to be buried where we drop, and that is not important except that it means we stay until the end of our time. We want to finish up as best we can."