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Lowell Gess, Missionary Eye Doctor

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On this date in 1968 the Bismarck Tribune reported on Dr. Lowell Gess and his family. Lowell, his wife Ruth, and three of their six children had recently moved to Bismarck and were excited to have the remaining children join them by Christmas. Normally such an event would not make the news, but the Gess family was a bit unusual. The family had just moved to North Dakota from Sierra Leone, where Dr. Gess served as a medical missionary.

Lowell Gess was born in 1921 in Paynesville, MN. When he was eleven he felt called to medical missionary work. He graduated from Macalester College in 1942 and from the Evangelical Theological Seminary in 1945.

Lowell became a pastor in St. Cloud and married Ruth Bradley of Winnipeg, who had just graduated from nursing school. Two years later Lowell entered medical school in St. Louis. After finishing his residency, the couple moved to Nigeria to serve as missionaries, and later to Sierra Leone.

Dr. Gess soon realized that Sierra Leone did not have a single ophthalmologist. He switched his focus and in the mid-sixties completed an ophthalmology residency at the University of Minnesota. He returned to Sierra Leone where he was the country’s only ophthalmologist.

In 1967, the Gess family moved back to the United States so their children could finish their education, choosing to make their home in Bismarck. But Dr. Gess and his wife were not done with their missionary work, and returned to Sierra Leone in 1972. Finally retiring from missionary work in 1975, the Gesses moved to Alexandria, MN where Dr. Gess opened an eye clinic. But they returned to Sierra Leone for a couple months every year, founding the Lowell and Ruth Gess United Methodist Hospital in Freetown in 1984.

When Ebola broke out in West Africa in 2014, Dr. Gess, 93 years old, flew to Sierra Leone to help. He discovered that Ebola survivors often suffered from sight issues due to the virus remaining active in their eyes. Dr. Gess taught local doctors how to treat this issue, returning to Africa many times over the years. His last trip was in 2019 at 98 years old. He celebrated his 100th birthday in July 2021.

Dakota Datebook by Trista Raezer-Stursa


Author Unknown, “2020 ASCRS Foundation Change Humanitarian Award: Lowell Gess, MD,” ASCRS,, accessed November 18, 2021.

Author Unknown, “Distinguished Alums 1999, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary,, accessed November 18, 2021.

Baxter, Annie, “93-year-old Doc is Not Afraid of Ebola,” Marketplace,, accessed November 18, 2021.

Chaffins, Amy, “Selfless Service: Doctor Credits God, Strict Protocol for His Heathy Return to the U.S.,” The Fargo Forum, April 4, 2015,, accessed November 18, 2021.  

Liestman, Linda, The Life, Times and Faith of Dr. Lowell Gess “To God be the Glory!”, accessed November 18, 2021. 

Middaugh, Gen, “Bismarck is Home to Gess Family after 15 Years in South Africa,” The Bismarck Tribune, December 17, 1868, pg. 5.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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