A black and white photograph of four Asian men in uniform carrying a box labeled in English "Humand Blood Handle with Care" held with poles on a dirt road.

Global Medicine in China and Taiwan: A Diasporic History

Wayne Soon, PhD, will speak on Thursday, May 11, 2023 at 2:00 PM ET. This talk will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Dr. Soon is Associate Professor in the Program of the History of Medicine in the Department of Surgery and Program of History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at the University of Minnesota. Circulating Now interviewed him about his research and upcoming talk.

Circulating Now: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

Studio photograph of a young Asian man in a suit.
Photo courtesy Karl Rabe, Vassar College

Wayne Soon: I am an Associate Professor in the Program in the History of Medicine at the University of Minnesota. I received my Ph.D. from Princeton University and have taught at Earlham College and Vassar College. My current research projects center around the history of health insurance and medical practices in postwar China and Taiwan and the transpacific history of SARS and COVID-19.

My typical workday involves preparing and teaching courses on the history of modern and East Asian medicine, attending colloquiums, doing service-related work, and conducting historical research. I particularly enjoy working closely with the Wangensteen Historical Library in incorporating library visits for my classes. Students especially appreciate working with impressive collections at the library for my classes.

CN: What initially sparked your interest in the History of Medicine?

WS: I became interested in the history of medicine in graduate school, where I discovered that many members of the Chinese diaspora held key leadership positions in public health, medical school, and military medical institutions in twentieth-century China. I was fortunate to receive good funding from my graduate program and other funding sources to embark on research in Britain, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the United States to trace their international medical presence across three continents. Through multi-country archival research, I began to see how their presence in China was a confluence of highly contingent factors that cannot be reduced to merely a category of Western-trained Chinese doctors. Their diasporic identities and international connections mattered greatly in their efforts to bring biomedicine to China, even as they faced significant opposition from various historical actors. They effectively wielded their cultural, medical, and linguistic abilities to court and placate British and Japanese colonial officials, American aid personnel, Chinese politicians and military personnel, and local patients.

CN: In your upcoming talk, “Global Medicine in China and Taiwan: A Diasporic History,” you highlight the stories of several doctors trained outside of China. Tell us a little about their backgrounds.

A black and white photograph of an Asian man in a military jacket and tie.
Lt. Gen. Robert S.K. Lim (Lin Kesheng) when he was director of National Defense Medical Center in Shanghai after the war, ca. 1946
Courtesy Columbia University on Indiana Memory

WS: I will share brief biographies of two Overseas Chinese doctors who were active in China. Dr. Robert Lim, a key protagonist in my book Global Medicine in China, was born in Singapore, grew up in Scotland, and received his undergraduate degree in medicine and surgery and a doctorate in histology and physiology from the University of Edinburgh. In 1924, he headed to the University of Chicago to conduct research with Swedish-American physiologist AJ Carlson. The Rockefeller Foundation sponsored his fellowship at the University of Chicago. It later paid his salary as the head of the Peking Union Medical College’s (PUMC) Department of Physiology from 1926 to 1936. After World War II broke out, Lim led a group of existing PUMC personnel and newly recruited diasporic and international medical personnel from abroad to establish a military medical complex in Southwest China to support China’s medical relief efforts during the Second World War.

A black and white print from a glass negative of an Asian man in a suit and tie and glasses.
Wu Lien-Teh, ca. 1910
Courtesy Library of Congress

Dr. Wu Lien-teh, who is more well-known in the history of medicine in China, grew up in Penang, British Malaya, and received his medical degree from the University of Cambridge. After stints in France and Penang, he was invited by Chinese officials in the Qing government to fight the plague in Manchuria in 1910. Many accounts of Wu exist (and some scholars dispute his importance), especially on his alleged popularization of masking and his infamous confrontation with a French doctor who denied the airborne transmission of the plague. My book focuses on how Wu’s diasporic upbringing and international connections allowed him to successfully convene an international plague prevention conference, significantly raising the profile of China’s plague-fighting capability. Wu also raised funds from antagonistic colonial forces in the region and recruit numerous diasporic and Western-trained personnel for his newly established North Manchurian Plague Prevention Service, which was an influential presence in North China between 1912 and 1936.

CN: What motivated these people to bring their expertise to China and how was it received?

WS: Raising consciousness of cultural connections with China and discrimination in British Malaya and elsewhere motivated the diaspora to consider China to advance their career. But my book argues that they were primarily motivated by professional reasons. Early and mid-twentieth century China provided a critical platform for diasporic medical personnel to draw upon their Western education, linguistic abilities, and international medical connections. Chinese government sources, colonial authorities in China, donations from the diaspora, and American organizations funded their enterprises. After the Communists took over China in 1949, several diasporic personnel took their expertise and experiences to Taiwan and the United States. Their innovations in developing new forms of medical triage, blood banking, scientific research, and mass medical education left important legacies on both sides of the Taiwan Straits.

These Overseas Chinese medical personnel faced opposition to bringing biomedicine to China. In Manchuria, family members would attempt to attack government quarantine facilities to free their loved ones. In wartime China, Chinese soldiers resisted the diasporic medical personnel’s attempts to draw their blood to support the operations of a blood bank in Kunming for cultural, financial, and discriminatory reasons. Robert Lim was also opposed by factions in the Chinese government and transpacific opponents of his patron—American Bureau for Medical Aid in China—and was temporarily fired from a leadership position because of such politicking. But, in general, they achieved many of the aims they sought in China: to diversify medical personnel in China, to train more medical personnel, to save lives in wartime China, and to bring the benefits of Western medicine to more people in China.

A black and white photograph of four Asian men in uniform carrying a box labeled in English "Humand Blood Handle with Care" held with poles on a dirt road.
Human blood in transit, ca. 1944
Courtesy Columbia University on Indiana Memory

CN: What impact, beyond health and medicine, did these events have on the larger Chinese society?

WS: The military medical complex—comprising of the Chinese Red Cross Medical Relief Corps, the Emergency Medical Services Training School, and the first Chinese Blood Bank—saved many lives and trained at least 15,000 medical personnel between 1937 and 1945. They arguably kept China at war against superior Japanese forces throughout the Second World War and prevented the latter from occupying the entire country. As some of these personnel moved to Taiwan with the Chinese Nationalists after 1949, they provided yet another system of medical training and care in the country alongside the longstanding Japanese colonial-era Taiwanese medical system. Their seven-decade endeavors in tinkering with medical education also left legacies for China and Taiwan, which continue to train as much medical personnel as possible while keeping compromises to the medical curriculum to the minimum. In the case of Taiwan, their endeavors saw successes, which has led post-1995 Taiwan to effectively administer a single-payer National Health Insurance system that provides medical care to all with low administrative costs and premiums, minimal waiting lists, no gatekeeping, and high-quality care.

Watch on YouTube

Wayne Soon’s presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All talks are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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