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The First American-Born Chinese Woman Doctor

Premiere: 5/27/2020 | 00:10:18 |

Margaret Chung (1889-1959) overcame great racism and sexism to become the first American-born Chinese female doctor in 1916. She also helped establish WAVES, the women’s naval reserves, paving the way for women’s integration into the U.S armed forces.

About the Episode

Margaret Chung (1889-1959), the eldest of 11 children in a Chinese immigrant family graduated from the University of Southern California Medical School in 1916, making her the first American-born Chinese female doctor. As a student, she was the only woman in her class, dressed in masculine clothing, and called herself ‘Mike.’ Chung was initially denied residencies and internships in hospitals, but went on to become an emergency surgeon in Los Angeles, which was extremely unusual for women at the time. In the early 1920s, she helped establish the first Western hospital in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and led its OB/GYN and pediatrics unit, where she treated the local Chinese American community along with various celebrities as a surgeon. She became a prominent behind-the-scenes political broker during World War II, establishing a network of thousands of men in the military and navy, that referred to her as ‘Mom Chung’ and themselves as her ‘fair-haired bastards.’ Chung also helped establish WAVES, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services, the women’s branch of the naval reserves during World War II, which helped pave the way for women’s integration into the U.S armed forces, though she was rejected from serving in it herself, likely because of her race and her sexuality.

Interviewees: biographer Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, Professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine and author of Doctor Mom Chung of the Fair-Haired Bastards; Esther Choo, emergency medicine doctor and researcher at Oregon Health & Science University, Co-Founder of Equity Quotient and Founding Member of Time’s Up Healthcare


Margaret Chung was the first American-born Chinese female doctor - transcending gender barriers, but also cultural and racial ones.

1918. Los Angeles, California.

29-year-old Margaret Chung worked in emergency surgery at a railroad hospital.

Doing plastic surgery for workers who have experienced accidents like metal fragments getting into people's eyes.

It's a very male working environment in which there have been very few women, let alone Chinese American women. But she was quite popular as a doctor.

'I like emergency work. I'm at my best under pressure.

As a very young child, having no toys to play with, I would take banana peels and make believe I was operating on them.'

Margaret Chung was born in Santa Barbara, California in 1889, the eldest of 11 children.

Her parents were immigrants from China who had converted to Christianity.

Chinese started immigrating to the U.S. As a result of the Gold Rush and eventually they built railroads, they worked as cooks, as domestic workers.

In 1882, the United States passes the Chinese Exclusion Act to ban Chinese laborers.

It's the first law that bans a particular nationality by name.

At the time, they were a very small portion of the population - something like 0.02% - but they became a racial scapegoat.

They were seen as people who were taking jobs away from Americans, as inherently alien, 'the yellow peril.' For someone like Margaret Chung, to grow up in that type of environment when you've been specifically identified by your country as being unwanted, would be a very difficult experience.

Chung moved often as a child and worked on a ranch and in a restaurant to support her family. She also cared for her mother, who suffered from tuberculosis.

'Each month there would be several nights that I would stand at the foot of her bed all night long, agonized with terror, watching her die a little at a time.'

She talks about watching her mother cough blood and how that was such a powerful memory.

I think being Christian also imbued her with a certain sense of vocation.

Early on she wanted to become a medical missionary.

In 1911, Chung received a scholarship to attend medical school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

She's the only woman and the only person who's non-white.

The national average in the 20th century was that women were at most 5% of medical school classes. So, I think being in that environment in which you're an outsider, she adapted strategies.

While in med school, Chung began dressing like a man, and went by the name 'Mike,' instead of Margaret.

'Any woman surgeon bucks heavy odds of prejudice.

When that woman is of Chinese descent, she is granted even fewer mistakes.'

Women were in nursing roles, assistant roles, volunteer roles.

And you think about Margaret Chung deciding to open that door for us.

How fearless she must've been.

She put into motion so many things historically that made my life possible.

My name is Esther Choo.

I'm an emergency medicine doctor and researcher at Oregon Health and Science University. When I chose emergency medicine, one of my mentors said, 'there's nothing emergency about you.' He thought of me as this nice, quiet female, and emergency medicine as a field for assertive men.

And I fortunately have enough of a rebel inside of me that that made me just want to do it even more.

I think the dominant image of the doctor is a white man.

That is the image that I had growing up. And so when I walk in, it's not always intuitive that I'm their doctor.

And every now and then there are people who simply don't want an Asian woman as their doctor.

In 1916, Chung graduated from medical school, becoming the first American-born Chinese woman physician.

She was rejected from both medical missions in China and internships at California hospitals.

She's able to become an intern by going to Chicago and working for a women's hospital. Her mentor, Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, co-founder of the American Medical Women's Association, had a mission to help train other women doctors, so she would refer to people like Margaret Chung as one of her 'surgical daughters. ' Chung returned to Los Angeles in 1918, where she opened her private practice.

She's in Southern California as Hollywood takes off as an industry.

She worked as a plastic surgeon for some of the Hollywood actors.

Mary Pickford was apparently one of her first star clients.

She knew all these famous people: John Wayne, Tennessee Williams, Ronald Reagan.

Chung soon moved her practice to San Francisco's Chinatown, then home to the largest Chinese American community in the country. There, in 1925, she helped found a hospital where she led the OB/GYN and pediatric unit.

'There were no Chinese doctors practicing American medicine in Chinatown, and I saw a great future there... But my first years were disheartening... The older generation still believed in Chinese herbs, and the younger generation would go to white physicians.'

She's new to the community. She doesn't have family connections there.

She's a Chinese American woman doctor who dresses in male clothing.

Was Margaret Chung a lesbian? My initial impulse is yes.

She was someone who expressed erotic, romantic longing for other women, like Elsa Gidlow, who is a Canadian lesbian poet, Sophie Tucker, a vaudeville singer/performer. So I think of her as someone who is queer, who lived outside the social norms in so many different ways.

In the 1930s, Chung began dressing in a feminine way, perhaps to be more accepted socially.

In emergency medicine, women are still the minority, about a third of all physicians and even fewer people of color.

When you think of disabled, immigrant, gay, trans, physicians, those statistics are lacking.

And so I was one of the founding members for Time's Up Healthcare in 2019, to try to bring greater inclusion, equity, and safety to the healthcare workplace.

We've signed on more than 60 healthcare institutions across the country who have pledged to create safe and equitable workplaces, and to monitor sexual harassment and discrimination.

Diversity and inclusivity are not just feel good topics.

It's really about providing the best care for Americans.

As part of a campaign of aggression that led to World War II, Japan invaded China in the 1930s.

China fought back with aid from the U.S.

Chung organized fundraisers in over 700 cities for the war effort.

She also recruited American pilots and soldiers to assist China in the war.

She becomes known as 'Mom Chung' and she has over a thousand adopted children from the U.S. military, entertainment circles, political circles, and they became known as 'fair-haired bastards.' There was a Hollywood movie based on her life. There was a comic book.

So she gets quite a bit of cultural circulation at that time.

After the U.S. joined World War II in 1941, Chung lobbied Congress to allow women to join the Army and the Navy.

Her efforts were instrumental in the creation of the Women's Naval Reserves, known as WAVES.

This was an opportunity that she wanted to create both for herself, but also other women. And it raised a lot of concern.

Can a lady be a soldier?

Because being a soldier is the ultimate male prerogative.

So Margaret Chung was rejected from the same organization that she helped to create. And officially it was because she was too old.

But I suspect that being a woman of color was also a barrier.

And the rumors about her sexuality.

After the war, Chung retired from medical practice and her adopted sons purchased a house for her. Hundreds of them attended her funeral in 1959.

Margaret Chung was not afraid to break barriers.

She's someone who adapted and changed. She faced a lot of restrictions, racial segregation, but found creative ways to do what she wanted to do with her life.

That life trajectory is so improbable, which really speaks to her courage and her fundamental ability to think a path for herself where no one had gone before.

It's breathtaking to think about.

'I used to be ladylike and deferential, but found it didn't pay.

Everywhere I was stepped on. Now I treat them rough. They lap it up.'


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