Vivia Belle Appleton, M.D., spent her early career traveling the globe, working to improve the health of children and mothers. She served with the American Red Cross in France during World War I, endured a brutal winter supervising isolated hospitals in Labrador, Canada, and spent three years on a medical mission to China. Settling in Hawaii in 1925, Dr. Appleton practiced pediatrics there for the next fifty years, receiving widespread recognition for her medical work and community service.
Vivia Belle Appleton was born in 1879, in Tama, Iowa, the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Richard Westcott Appleton. After her early schooling in Tama, she attended Rockford College in Illinois, then transferred to Cornell University, where she earned a bachelor of arts degree. She then enrolled at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, graduating with a doctor of medicine degree in 1906.
Dr. Appleton completed a general internship at the New England Hospital for Women and Children in Boston, then studied at hospitals in London, Paris, and Berlin. Upon her return from Europe, she specialized in pediatrics, and completed a second internship at Babies Hospital in New York. She moved to California to become assistant, then instructor, in pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, working at the University Hospital. While there she met Dr. William Palmer Lucas, professor of pediatrics. During World War I, Dr. Lucas directed the American Red Cross Bureau of Child Welfare in France, hoping to reduce infant mortality caused by harsh wartime conditions. In the summer of 1918 he invited Dr. Appleton to join him.
In the fall of 1919, Dr. Appleton next went on assignment to Labrador, on Canada's northeast coast, for the National Board of the Young Women's Christian Association. While there she supervised several hospitals established by Dr. Wilfred T. Grenfell, an English medical missionary. Dr. Appleton endured a long, difficult, Labrador winter, and faced an epidemic of beriberi, a disease caused by a lack of thiamine in the diet, which affects the nervous system and causes pain and swelling throughout the body. As a result of this experience, she became interested in the field of deficiency diseases.
In August 1921, Dr. Appleton took up her next assignment, a three-year position in Shanghai, China, for the Council of Health Education. As part of a children's health program at Shanghai, she introduced a series of colorful posters promoting good health habits. She learned to speak Chinese while living with a local family for a year, and took the opportunity to travel the countryside. On one journey, she trekked by horseback across the plains of northern China into Mongolia, accompanied only by two female friends and a Chinese guide.
Following her Asian assignment, Dr. Appleton visited Hawaii briefly in 1924, lecturing on her experiences abroad. She returned to Hawaii in 1925 to become director of the new Division of Infancy and Maternity in the Territorial Board of Health. Under her guidance, infant and maternal mortality in the Hawaiian Islands were reduced by 100 percent, and sixty-six child health centers were established throughout the islands.
In 1926 she was elected to the committee-at-large of the Sixth Territorial Conference of Social Work pursuing studies on the height and weight of Chinese children, based on data she had collected while overseas. Dr. Appleton earned a master of public health degree at Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health in 1929.
In recognition of her 'service to humanity,' Dr. Appleton received the Medallion Award from Johns Hopkins University in 1956. As well as her medical practice, she was active in the Hawaii Chapter of the Pan-Pacific and Southeast Asia Women's Association. She also belonged to the American Medical Association, the Iowa Medical Society, the American Association of University Women, and the Women's Association of Hawaii, and was active in Honolulu's Central Union Church. In 1976, Dr. Appleton published "A Doctor's Letters from China Fifty Years Ago," a booklet based on her letters to her mother in Hawaii during the 1920s.
In 1973 Dr. Appleton donated funds to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in honor of her father. The endowment's income funds the Richard Westcott Appleton Scholarship, awarded annually to an exceptional student. Dr. Appleton died at her Honolulu home on October 23, 1978, at the age of 99.