Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973)

Source: Courtesy of Pearl S. Buck International

Buck at about the time she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1938

Pearl Buck, who won both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes, was one of the best known and most widely read American novelists of the twentieth century. She was also an adoptive parent, a prominent early critic of racial and religious matching, a thorn in the side of the child welfare establishment, and an advocate of special needs, transracial, and international adoptions.

The child of Protestant missionaries, Buck spent the first half of her life in China and the second half living in the United States. Her formative experience abroad led her to write prolifically about Asia for western audiences and work tirelessly on behalf of international humanitarianism and intercultural understanding. She was a multiculturalist who hoped to dignify Chinese history and make cultural difference understandable for Americans. But she was also an anti-communist and a champion of civil rights who believed that the human story was fundamentally universal.

After her first marriage, to John Lossing Buck, Pearl give birth to a “feeble-minded” child, Carol, in 1921. Carol was a victim of PKU, an inherited metabolic disease, and was institutionalized for most of her life. After her daughter's birth, Buck had a hysterectomy. Although this wrenching personal experience must have shaped her thinking about children and families profoundly, Buck kept the fact of Carol’s existence and mental retardation secret for a very long time. Buck and her first husband adopted a baby in 1926. With her second husband, Richard Walsh, Buck adopted two infant boys from the Cradle (one of the country's first specialized adoption agencies) in 1936, followed by four mixed-race children from Europe, Asia, and the United States. In 1949, she founded an adoption agency, Welcome House, after being unable to locate an agency that was willing to place a fifteen-month old of mixed racial background because of his brown skin. “I was indignant, so I started my own damned agency!” she explained.

In 1955, Buck publicly criticized social workers and religious institutions for standing between tens of thousands of homeless children and willing parents in order to preserve their jobs. She believed that families formed by love—rather than prejudices based on race, religion, nation, and blood—were living expressions of democracy that could counteract communist charges that America’s global defense of freedom was deeply hypocritical in the era of Jim Crow.

In 1991, after forty years, Welcome House merged with the Pearl S. Buck Foundation to form Pearl S. Buck International, an organization that continues to carry out Buck’s work in the fields of humanitarian aid, intercultural education, and adoption.

 

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