Overlooked No More: Margaret Chung, Doctor Who Was ‘Different From Others’

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

Margaret Chung knew from age 10 that she wanted to become a medical missionary to China. She was inspired by stories her mother had told of life in a mission home, where her mother stayed as a child after emigrating from China to California. It is believed that she named Margaret after the home’s superintendent.

Religion was an important part of young Margaret’s life in California. She was raised in a Presbyterian household in Santa Barbara, where her father insisted that the family pray before every meal and sang hymns with the children before bed.

So it was a blow that after graduating from medical school, at the University of Southern California, in 1916, her application to be a medical missionary was rejected three times by administrative boards. Though she had been born on United States soil, she was regarded as Chinese, and no funding for Chinese missionaries existed.

Still, following that dream led her to a different accolade: Chung became the first known American woman of Chinese ancestry to earn a medical degree, according to her biographer.

She opened a private practice in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It was one of the few places that would provide Western medical care to Chinese and Chinese American patients, who were often scapegoated as the source of epidemics and turned away by hospitals. (Her father died after he was denied treatment for injuries he sustained in a car accident.)

As a physician and surgeon during the Second Sino-Japanese War (beginning in 1937) and World War II, she was praised for her patriotic efforts, including starting a social network in California for pilots, military officials, celebrities and politicians that she leveraged to help in recruitment for the war and to lobby for the creation of a women’s naval reserve.

Every Sunday she hosted dinners for men in the military, catering for crowds of up to 300 people, who called her “Mom.” Her efforts caught the attention of the press, which portrayed her as representing unity between China and the U.S., allies in the war.

Margaret Jessie Chung was born on Oct. 2, 1889, in Santa Barbara, Calif. At the time, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was in full force. Her parents, who had immigrated from China in the 1870s, were barred from obtaining U.S. citizenship under the act. They faced limited job opportunities, so the family moved around California as they looked for work. Her father, Chung Wong, was a former merchant who toiled on California farms and sold vegetables. Her mother, Ah Yane, also farmed and sometimes worked as a court interpreter.

Margaret herself was no stranger to hard labor. She took on farming chores when her parents were unwell and helped raise all 10 of her siblings, duties that disrupted her schooling; she did not complete the eighth grade until she was 17. To fund the rest of her education, she spent summer evenings knocking on doors to sell copies of The Los Angeles Times as part of a competition for a scholarship, which she won. It paid for preparatory school, which enabled her to gain acceptance to the University of Southern California College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1911.

“As the only Chinese girl in the U.S.C. medical school, I am compelled to be different from others,” she said in a 1913 interview. She reinvented herself as “Mike,” slicking back her black hair and dressing in a long blazer draped over a shirt and tie, completing the outfit with a floor-length skirt. She worked throughout college, according to her biography, sometimes scrubbing dishes at a restaurant while studying textbooks propped on a shelf.

After she graduated and was rejected as a medical missionary, Chung turned to surgery, performing trauma operations at Santa Fe Railroad Hospital in Los Angeles. Touring musicians and actors used the hospital; most famously, she removed the actress Mary Pickford’s tonsils.

Chung soon established her own private practice in Los Angeles, with a clientele that included actors in the movie industry’s early days in Holllywood.

While accompanying two patients to San Francisco, Chung fell in love with the city’s landscape, its dramatic hills cloaked in fog. After learning that no doctor practiced Western medicine in the city’s Chinatown, home to the largest Chinese American population in the country, she left her Los Angeles practice and set up a clinic on Sacramento Street in 1922.

San Francisco was isolating. People from the community invited Chung out, but she declined, writing in her unpublished autobiography, “I was embarrassed because I couldn’t understand their flowery Chinese.” Rumors persisted that because she was single, she must have been interested in women. She was protective of her personal life, but her biographer, Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, said Chung had frequented a North Beach speakeasy with Elsa Gidlow, who openly wrote lesbian poetry.

Chung’s practice initially had difficulty attracting patients. But as word spread, her waiting room filled, in some cases with white tourists curious to see her Chinese-inspired furniture and her consultation room, whose walls were plastered with pictures of her celebrity patients.

Years of planning and community fund-raising culminated in the opening of San Francisco’s Chinese Hospital in 1925. Chung became one of four department heads, leading the gynecology, obstetrics and pediatrics unit while still running her private practice.

When Japan invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria in September 1931, an ensign in the United States Naval Reserves, looking to support the Chinese military, visited Chung at her practice. She invited the man, who was a pilot, and six of his friends for a home-cooked dinner. It was the first of many that she would host almost every night for months. It was, she wrote in her autobiography, “the most selfish thing I’ve ever done because it was more fun than I had ever known in all my life.”

Every Sunday, “Mom” personally catered suppers for hundreds of her “boys.” By the end of World War II, her “family” swelled to about 1,500. To help keep track, everyone had a number and group: Leading pilots were the Phi Beta Kappa of Aviation; those who could not fly (including celebrities and politicians) were Kiwis; and the submarine units were Golden Dolphins.

She called upon influential members of her network to secretly recruit pilots for the American Flying Tigers, an American volunteer group that pushed back against Japan’s invasion of China. She also enlisted two of her Kiwis to introduce a bill in the U.S. House and Senate that led to the creation of Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services in 1942, a naval group better known as the WAVES. Eager to support her country, she sought to join the group but her application was rejected.

Despite her efforts, no official recognition of her contributions ever came. After the war ended, attendance at her Sunday dinners dwindled. Nevertheless, Chung continued to practice medicine, visit her military “sons” and write her memoir.

She died of ovarian cancer on Jan. 5, 1959. She was 69.

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