Beyond Covid-19: Asian Americans in Medical Science

By Jack Phillips

Throughout American history Asian Americans have been seen as unhygienic and carriers of disease. From the fears of syphilis during the Chinese Exclusion act to the labeling of Covid-19 as “Kung Flu” by former president Donald Trump, and the accompanying rise in anti-Asian hate crimes the Asian American body has long been viewed as a site of contamination that threatens American safety.

This article aims to combat these dangerous and harmful assumptions by highlighting a few of the achievements and contributions to medicine made by Asian Americans.

  1. Har Bin Khorana

Born in 1922 in a village called Raipur in what is now called Pakistan to Hindu parents, Khorana was an integral figure in the creation of Chemical Biology. Specifically his work in creating synthetic molecules created a greater understanding of the genetic code. He attended Punjab university and graduated with a Masters in Chemistry despite the fact that he had been an English major. He spent the majority of his career working on the synthesis of a complete synthetic gene and by 1976 had successfully proven that his synthetic tRNA functioned in a way that was essentially identical to the naturally created version. This discovery laid the foundations for the field we now call biotechnology and his methods and concepts are still used when creating synthetic genomes. In recognition of his work, in 2007, UW Madison created the Khorana Scholars Program which aims to help prospective scientists from both the US and India through an exchange program where the students travel to the host country to work in leading laboratories. He is also a Nobel Laureate, receiving the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1968, eight years after he became a naturalized US citizen. His life is an example of the some would call an inspirational example of immigrant success and rising above one’s origins, but it is important to remember opportunities for immigrants are often scarce and the success of a few is simply evidence that accessible education and opportunities are critical to not only personal success but also to the success of academia and advancement as a whole.

2. Flossie Wang-Stahl

Flossie Wang-Stahl was a molecular biologist born in 1946 in Guangzhou, China. She is best known for being on the team that identified HIV as the precursor to AIDS, as well as

being the first to successfully clone HIV. This achievement would allow for the advancement in treatment for HIV. After moving with her family from Guangzhou to Hong Kong in 1952, she chose to move again to the US to study molecular biology at UCLA. When she moved, like many other Asian immigrants and Asian Americans she was told that it would be advantageous for her to change or anglicize her name, and her father suggested the name “Flossie”. She started research on HIV/AIDS in the early 1980’s, at a time when fear and fear mongering around the disease was high, as it was largely unknown what caused it and how it was transmitted. The research she conducted was not only instrumental in discovering how HIV led to AIDS but it also paved the way for the development of a test able to detect HIV. In addition, she also conducted research to repress HIV in stem cells and worked to develop durg that would treat hepatitis C based on her HIV findings. The breakthroughs she made in virology are still being applied today to diseases including Covid. She passed away just last year on July 8th 2020.

3. Margret Chung

Nicknamed “Mom Chung’’ by the servicemen she treated during World War II, Margret Chung was the first female Chinese-American physician. She was born in 1889 in Santa Barbara, California to first generation immigrants Minnie and Chung Wong. As the oldest of eleven children she was often in charge of taking care of her siblings and her experience of watching her mother suffer tuberculosis and the poverty in which they lived caused her to declare her intent to become a medical missionary at the age of ten. Although the family had to move often in search of work, causing her schooling to be delayed and disrupted often she was noted to be a talented student and won a scholarship to USC through selling papers for the Los Angeles Times. She graduated in 1909 and subsequently graduated from medical school in 1916. After graduating she faced discrimination withing the field, being one of six graduates to not obtain an internship. It was at the beginning of World War II that Chung began to be an influential figure as both she and her “adopted children” were featured in newspapers and magazines like the National Geographic and Life. In addition to being the first female Chinese-American physician and gaining notoriety for her service during WWII she has also been speculated to be a queer historical figure for the Asian American community as she was known to have intimate and romantically sharged relationships with multiple women. Although this legacy is complex and debated, as historical queerness is always hard to determine and discuss, she represents not only a first for Asian Americans in medicine but also an example of how non-cisheteronormative relationships have always existed both in American history and within immigrant communities.

4. Jokichi Takamine

Adrenalin is a hormone often associated with stress and the fight or flight reaction. It was first isolated in 1901 in a laboratory run by Japanese American Jokichi Takamine. Born in Japan in 1854, just after Japan was “opened” by Commodore Matthew Perry he studied technology at the University of Glasgow after being selected by the government. Initially, he studied the manufacture of fertilizer but after it became clear that such a could not compete in the already saturated American fertilizer industry he developed a new method of brewing that involved using the Japanese process for alcohol making to Western alcohol. Specifically he used “koji” a type of rice fungus well known in many Asian cultures. In 1894 he applied for and was granted a patent for the “Process of Making Diastatic Enzyme” which funded the creation of the laboratory where he would experiment on adrenalin.

There had been previous attempts to isolate the hormone but his lab was the first successful one, at least at the time, although later it was discovered that it was actually a mixture of pure epinephrine and norepinephrine. Nevertheless, his patented hormone was instantly popular with medical professionals using it for everything from controlling hemorrhaging during surgery to allergies. Additionally, his discovery and subsequent fame also played a role in international relations between the US and Japan as he was involved in the gifting of 2,000 cherry trees to the US, that would eventually become the National Cherry Blossom Festival that occurs to this day round the Tidal Basin in Washington DC. This shows that there is also an inherently political component to the success of Asian Americans, that these achievements go further than just the scientific fields they are in.

5. Dr. David Ho

Time’s Person of the Year in 1996, Dr. David Ho is known for his work on investigating the replication of HIV in cells and his ongoing efforts to create a vaccine that would prevent the further spread of the disease. He is a Taiwanese-American born in 1952 in Tazhong, immigrating to the US in 1965 with his mother and younger brother, following his father who had immigrated in 1957. Like many Asian immigrants, his father had immigrated because he felt that it was the best way to ensure a future for his children, with education being of paramount importance. His family’s arrival in 1965 coincides with the change in how immigration quotas worked due to the Hart-Cellar act that got rid of the previous system based on nationality, instead allotting every country 20,000 spaces a year. The vast majority of Asian Americans currently in the US were admitted after this change and the story of his family’s immigration mirrors the experience of many others.

He became involved with the HIV epidemic very early on in the 80’s as a medical resident in Los Angeles. Through studying patients and examining how the virus replicates they were able to determine that it was a constantly replicating process, one that allowed the virus to be much more resistant to treatment. By 1996 however, they had found that by combining multiple drugs for a single patient the viral load could be reduced to non-detectable levels. The breakthroughs he’s made in this field have been instrumental in the treatment and management of HIV/AIDS and in addition to being Time’s Person of the Year he has also been awarded six honorary doctorates, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Academia Sinica (Republic of China), and the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Science.

6. Min Chueh Chang

As part of the research team involved in the development of the first oral contraceptive pill Min Cheuh Chang was instrumental in revolutionizing birth control as we think of it today. He was born in China in 1908, graduating from Tsing Hua University in 1933. Initially the main focus of his study was animal reproductive biology as he examined artificial insemination during World War II, an important area as it was potentially important to increasing food production during the war. After, along with other scientists he worked on the creation of a contraceptive using synthesized progesterone, a hormone that is still used in many contraceptives today. This research was funded by Planned Parenthood.

In addition to his work in the field of contraception he also pioneered research into in vitro fertilization by showing that eggs could be fertilized outside a surrogate and then later implanted using rabbits. His work in this subject then laid the foundations for the first successful human in vitro fertilization and the first birth of a “test tube” baby in 1978. In recognition of his work he was awarded multiple awards including the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award and the Wippman Scientific Research Award from Planned Parenthood. Both oral contraception and artificial insemination are benchmarks of modern reproductive health and his work as a Chinese trained and Asian American immigrant should not be forgotten when discussing the advancement of reproductive rights and freedoms, He passed away on June 5th 1991.

7. Min Chiu Li

Min Chiu Li was a Chinese American physician who was the first person to successfully treat patients with cancer using chemotherapy. He was born and trained medically in China, immigrating to the US in 1947 so that he could study immunology and the cultural revolution in China made returning an impossibility for him. The chemotherapy treatment he developed in the 1950’s is still the most effective treatment for the type of cancer he developed it for with most people able to be fully treated only using chemotherapy. Later, in 1960 he also published a paper reporting that chemotherapy was also found to be effective at combating testicular cancer. In addition to this revolution in effective cancer treatment he also pioneered the idea of continuing treatment even after there was no evidence as otherwise it would be likely that the disease would return. His revolutionary treatment of metastatic choriocarcinoma is also important because it allowed for treatment without sacrificing the organs affected, allowing women with the disease to keep their reproductive organs and later even conceive and deliver children. Chemotherapy is one of the most well known treatments for cancer today yet most people are not aware of the inventor, or that he was educated in mainland China and an immigrant to the US. It is especially noteworthy that he received his medical education while in China as it contradicts the popular notion of Asian Americans immigrating and “exploiting” American resources and education.

8. Balamurali Krishna “Bala” Ambati

Holding the Guinness World record for the youngest medical doctor child prodigy Balamurali Krishna “Bala” Ambati became a doctor at just 17. He was born in southern India before immigrating with his parents to Buffalo New York in 1980 when he was three years old. By the time he was eleven he had graduated from Baltimore City College as well as co-authoring a book titled AIDS: The True Story — A Comprehensive Guide. At thirteen he graduated from New York University and at seventeen years and two hundred and ninety four days he became the youngest doctor in history, graduating from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine with scores above ninety nine percent. He says that his interest in medicine started after boiling water was spilled on his legs when he was three and he underwent multiple surgeries. Both he and his family faced pushback over their choice for him to pursue medicine at such a young age, some concerned that he was being put under too much pressure by his parents, a common accusation for Asian American parents who are often viewed as overly focused on grades and academic performance. Although Ambati’s situation was obviously more extreme than most the general perception of Asian Americans as being focused on careers, especially high paying careers at the expense of all else is a prevalent one.

After graduating medical school he opted to specialize in ophthalmology and is currently ranked extremely highly at a variety of procedures. In addition, he also researches blood vessel abnormalities, which are involved in everything from corneal injury to diabetes and cancer. Currently he is 43 and still practicing medicine.


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I have adhered to the Honor Code in this assignment.

Jack Phillips



Comparative American Studies at Oberlin

Musings by students and faculty affiliated with the Comparative American Studies department at Oberlin College.