Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers, Maryknoll Sisters, and Maryknoll Lay Missioners played critical roles in establishing medical missions in China during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Their dedication continues to provide medical assistance in mission throughout the world. But who was the driving force behind this massive undertaking? None other than the famous American anesthesiologist, Dr. Paluel J. Flagg.

Because a billion human beings know nothing of medicine, surgery, hygiene, or sanitation; because hundreds of thousands of your fellow creatures not only die, but live long lives of suffering from preventable and curable diseases; because here is an opportunity to practice medical charity which can not pauperize the profession or foster in the recipients a spirit of evasion of just fees; because medical missions are Catholic in their burden, and their charity is and always has been extended to all.
Dr. Paulel J. Flagg

Portrait of Dr. Paluel Flagg

Dr. Paluel J. Flagg
August 22, 1886 – January 17, 1970
Founder of the Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB)

Fr. McCabe and Dr. Paluel Flagg at Maryknoll, 1914

Fr. McCabe and Dr. Paluel Flagg at Maryknoll, 1914

Paluel J. Flagg – The Early Years

Paluel Joseph Flagg was born in Yonkers, NY on August 22, 1886 to Howard and Eulalie (De Marmon) Flagg. He was the eldest of his siblings; Roger, Elsie, Lucien, and Eulalia. A city boy through and through, he lived and worked in New York City his entire life. His devout Catholic upbringing and education strongly influenced his life and career.

In 1909, Paluel earned his Doctor of Medicine degree from Fordham University Medical School, and began working as a young physician at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. This was an exciting period in his life, not only for his blossoming career but for his personal life as well. On October 11, 1910, he married Stella Hannah Robblee in Providence, Rhode Island. They returned to New York to start their family.

It’s uncertain when Paluel became acquainted with the Maryknoll Fathers & Brothers, however, we know that he and Fr. James A. Walsh came to an agreement. After Maryknoll Seminary’s formal opening on September 21, 1912, Dr. Flagg officially joined the Medical Department faculty, traveling from NYC to give weekly lectures on medical practice and health care. He’s also credited with convincing several area doctors to join the Medical Department, including Dr. C. C. Sweet, Dr. Edwin H. Huntington of Ossining, and Dr. Frederick Gould of New York City (Wiest, 1997).

Now is Your Time of Grief

The beginning of his illustrious career was sparked by personal tragedy. Before joining Maryknoll’s staff in September 1912, he lost an infant daughter to neonatal asphyxia. This condition falls under the umbrella of Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy (HIE), where brain damage occurs due to lack of oxygen before or shortly after birth. Dr. Flagg’s inability to save his daughter, despite extensive medical training, left deep emotional scars that altered the course of his career.

Still grieving his baby’s death, he became a widower in December 1912 when Stella Flagg died. Dr. Flagg was left alone to raise their only surviving child, an infant Virginia Flagg (later Sr. Virginia Flagg, MM). In his grief, he asked to join Maryknoll as a missionary doctor/priest. Fr. James A. Walsh, now his friend and confidant, convinced him to remain a layman for Virginia, his Maryknoll students, and his advocacy work for Catholic medical missions.

Doctor, Doctor, Give Me the News

By 1914, Dr. Flagg was writing a “doctor’s column” in The Field Afar. In 1922, the column was renamed “Maryknoll Medical Activities” and was credited with convincing Dr. Harry P. Blaber to join Maryknoll in 1930. (Dr. Blaber’s efforts, in turn, convinced Dr. Artemio I. Bagalawis to join him as Maryknoll’s first long-term lay missioner.) Dr. Flagg regularly submitted articles to Catholic newspapers and medical journals across the country to solicit medical professionals for the missions, medical donations, and financial support.

Supporting Maryknoll’s medical missions wasn’t his only focus. In addition to his career with St. Vincent’s Hospital, he pursued research in anesthesiology. Anesthesiologists focus on alleviating pain and distress in patients using numbing agents, along with monitoring patients’ vital functions before, during, and after surgery. He was driven to improve anesthesiology practice and increase patient safety. It’s believed that this was influenced by his daughter’s death. In 1916, Dr. Flagg published his first book, The Art of Anesthesia, and unveiled his modified artificial airway, the Flagg Airway.

Dr. Artemio Bagalawis (left) and Dr. Harry Blaber (right) Maryknoll's original Lay Missioners Sunwui, China, 1934

Dr. Artemio Bagalawis (left) and Dr. Harry Blaber (right). Maryknoll’s original Lay Missioners in Sunwui, China, 1934.

Maryknoll Procure and Medical Mission, New York City

Season of Growth

During Dr. Flagg’s tenure, the Maryknoll Medical Department experienced exponential growth. By 1921, the department’s goals had expanded to include educating Seminary students at the Venard College in Clark’s Summit, Pennsylvania. The addition of medical consultants, educators, and more reliable sources of medical supplies supported this growth. The Medical Department morphed into the Maryknoll Medical Bureau. Its headquarters were relocated to 410 East 57th Street, New York. The Bureau remained under the supervision of the Maryknoll Center, however, Dr. Flagg was appointed Director.

As Dr. Flagg’s fame and influence grew, more Catholic and medical organizations offered their support. The founder and president of the Catholic Hospital Association (now the Catholic Health Association) helped him establish a Medical Mission Committee within the association. In February 1928, it became incorporated as the Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB). The CMMB’s Medical Donations Program has continued to ship medicines and medical supplies free-of-charge to the world’s most vulnerable people since its creation in 1931.


There’s a lot more to Dr. Paluel J. Flagg’s story that we don’t have time to cover in this post. If you are interested in learning more about his life and works, I hope you’ll explore some of the resources provided below.

History of Anesthesia – Special Online Exhibit by Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology (WLM)

History of the Catholic Medical Mission Board

Obituary of Dr. Paluel J. Flagg

Dr. Flagg never became a missioner, but his legacy far surpassed his ambitions. He continued to advocate and influence the medical field throughout his lifetime. When Dr. Flagg died on January 17, 1970, the CMMB was sending over 2 million pounds of medical supplies annually to 3,000 medical missions across 57 countries. Maryknoll Fathers, Brothers, and Sisters saved and enhanced the lives of countless people because of Dr. Flagg’s medical training program. His ambitious career created a ripple effect that impacted individuals, families, and communities on a massive global scale.

At the time of his death, Dr. Flagg left behind his widow, Marcella Devlin Flagg, 8 sons, 4 daughters, 56 grandchildren, and 3 great-grandchildren. He rests in Flagg Cemetery in Vinalhaven, Maine, where he is surrounded by several generations of his family.

Dr. Paluel Flagg and family at Maryknoll, 1929

Grouped together toward the left side of the photograph: Dr. Paluel Flagg holding a baby Thomas Flagg, Virginia Flagg, and Dorothy Ritter Flagg.

The nine children seen here belong to Paluel and Dorothy. Their names are Jane, Paluel Jr., Aelfred, Dorothy, James Anthony, Francis, Paul, Peter, and Thomas. Each child is being held by a Maryknoll Father, with the exception of Thomas. The Fathers appear to be holding the children still for the photographer.

Dr. Harry Blaber performing surgery, c. 1930s

Dr. Harry Blaber performing surgery, c. 1930s

Dr. Blaber with a patient in Sunwui, 1934

Dr. Harry Blaber with a patient in Sunwui, China, 1934

Sister Bernie receiving medical training

Sister Bernadette Lynch receiving medical training at Maryknoll, c. 1950s

Maryknoll in China by Jean-Paul Wiest

Interested in learning more about Maryknoll? You can contact the Archives at:

Maryknoll Mission Archives
PO Box 305, Maryknoll, New York 10545
Phone: 914-941-7636
Office hours: 8:30 am-4:00 pm Monday-Friday


American Society of Anesthesiologists. (2021, February 1). Life from death: The tragedy and heroism of dr. Paluel J. Flagg. American Society of Anesthesiologists.

Bishop James A. Walsh. Maryknoll Mission Archives. (2019, July 25). Retrieved from

Catholic Health Association of the United States. (2024, March).

China Collections Guide. Maryknoll Mission Archives. (2022, February 11).

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (2023, July 11). Paluel Joseph De Marmon Flagg.

Di Silvestro, J. (2017, March 30). National Doctors’ Day. Maryknoll Mission Archives.

Dr Paluel J. Flagg (1886-1970. Find a Grave. (2021, August 28).

Dr. Harry P. Blaber. Maryknoll Mission Archives. (2019, July 25).

Flagg Airway. Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology. (2024).

Halloran, J. (2020, May 12). Maryknoll Medical Bureau. Maryknoll Mission Archives.

Healthier lives worldwide. CMMB. (2024, February 14).

History – CMMB. CMMB. (2021, February 2).

History of anesthesia. Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology. (2016).

Maine State Library Special Collections. (2015, September). Paluel J. Flagg correspondence. Digital Maine Repository.

Maryknoll Lay Missioners. (2020, August 5). Maryknoll’s first lay missioner.

Medical care. Maryknoll Mission Archives. (2022, February 11).

Mother Mary Joseph Rogers. Maryknoll Mission Archives. (2019, July 25). Retrieved from

The New York Times. (1970, January 18). Dr. Paluel Flagg, anesthesiologist. The New York Times.

Refugee relief. Maryknoll Mission Archives. (2022, February 11).

Sister Virginia Flagg, MM. Maryknoll Mission Archives. (2016, February 2).

Tpolasek. (2024, January 24). Chinese characters at the venard. Maryknoll Mission Archives.

What is HIE?. Hope for HIE – Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy. (2024).

Wiest, J.-P. (1997). Maryknoll in China: A history, 1918-1955. Orbis Books.

Wiest, J.-P. (2024). Maryknoll in China. Orbis Books.

World Biographical Encyclopedia, Inc. (2021). Paluel Joseph Flagg. Prabook.