Susan Rowena Bird was born July 31, 1865, in Sandoval, Illinois. She was the first child and only daughter of William Harrison and Susan Bowen Bird, a middle class family in the upper Midwestern United States. To avoid confusion with her mother, the family members called Susan Rowena by her middle name. Much of Rowena’s early education was received from her father, a Protestant clergyman and home missionary. In 1884, seven years after her father’s death, her mother moved the family to Oberlin, Ohio. Bird, then aged nineteen, completed her high school studies in Oberlin.
After attending public school in Oberlin, Susan Rowena Bird learned about the Student Volunteer Movement. This movement was popular at colleges in the Eastern United States, where members of the group involved themselves in weekly prayer and mission study meetings as well as participating in charity work at local missions. A belief in the Second Coming of Christ represented the zeal behind this non-denominational organization. The conversion of heathens was an urgent matter among some young Americans of the era, as is indicated by the Student Volunteer Movement’s slogan: “Evangelize the World in This Generation.” Thus, educated young people fanned the flames to support foreign missionaries. Spurred on by this idea and movement, Rowena began to entertain the possibility of doing church work abroad. With this in mind, she enrolled in Oberlin College in 1884 to get an appropriate education.
Oberlin College awarded Susan Rowena Bird a Literary degree in 1890. Subsequently, in 1895, the College also awarded her an A.B. degree. According to her student records, this second undergraduate degree was probably not earned, but awarded in recognition of her accomplishments and study of the Chinese language following her arrival in China.
In September 1890, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), in Boston, accepted Rowena’s application to go to China. She was twenty-five years old at the time she embarked on a missionary career. Upon reaching Shansi Province, China, Rowena joined the Clapps (Dwight Howard and Mary Jane), Charles Wesley and Eva Jane Price, the Thompsons (James, Marion, and Alma) and the recently arrived Davises (Francis Ward and Lydia Lord). The group, consisting of Oberlin College alumni, was often referred to as the “Oberlin Band,” and its members worked closely together. In the town of Taigu (or Taiku), Rowena taught in the boys’ boarding school that had been established by Mary Jane (Jennie) Rowland Clapp. Among her students was H.H. Kung (A.B. 1906), who later became China's Finance Minister (1933-44). Kung, an orphaned child, grew extremely attached to Bird, and counted her among the greatest influences in his life; he even pursued study in the United States after her death, inspired by his early studies with her. During the summers, Susan Rowena Bird worked at the mission's refuge for opium addicts in the mountain village of Liman.
Bird served as a missionary in Shansi Province from 1890 to 1900. She had one furlough in 1897-98, after which she returned to Taigu during the fall of 1898. Twenty-months later, on July 31, 1900, Bird and the other missionaries were killed by the Boxers during the Boxer Rebellion. In four months the Boxers killed more than 185 Protestant missionaries and members of their families and 47 Roman Catholic clerics and nuns.
On May 14, 1903, the Memorial Arch commemorating the loss of the Oberlin Shansi Missionaries was dedicated on the Oberlin College campus. Located in Tappan Square, the Memorial Arch is inscribed with a list of names of those killed in the Boxer Rebellion, including that of Susan Rowena Bird.