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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

War, Fame and Surgery: The Amazing Life of Margaret Chung, the First ABC Woman Surgeon

Her mother was raised in a brothel, and her son was Ronald Reagan.


Take any section of Dr Margaret Chung’s (1889–1959) life, and lay it against any other, and it is hard to believe they come from the biography of the same person. From an immigrant’s daughter hauling vegetables to earn enough to eat, she ended life as a celebrity surgeon and wartime hero with a small army of adopted sons that included admirals, senators, actors and artists. A conservative Bohemian, a platonic lesbian, and a traditional modernist, Chung was a nexus of contradiction held together by will and grit, a woman out of her own time and yet who could have been produced by none other.


Chung’s parents were immigrants from China who fell into the clutches of the late nineteenth-century American missionary system’s benevolent despotism. A number of religious sects at the time looked at the misery of the Chinese immigrant community and realised with a sort of reptilian cunning that here lay opportunity. The Presbyterian Church in particular explicitly formed a strategy targeting young girls, theorising that a converted girl indoctrinated into a cult of motherhood and Christ would in turn be a centre of Christian conversion in her community, a community otherwise inaccessible to white missionaries.


Chung’s parents were harvested by the Presbyterians in this manner under the public banner of charity and the private justification of sectarian tactics. Her mother, Lai Wan, was pulled at a young age from a brothel where she was working and given a home and stability in exchange for allowing herself to be made into the willing tool of the California Presbyterian Church’s conversion strategy. Her father was similarly brought up through the Presbyterian ranks in a different city, attaining a reputation for unique devotion. The Church decided it would be advantageous to marry their two star creations off to each other, and they were duly thrown into each other’s paths.


While this system of preying on immigrants’ misery to create strongholds of religious belief in an otherwise inaccessible culture is transparently heinous to us now, at the time it was considered the height of charity, something you could never be thankful enough for having inflicted upon you. Chung’s parents were lifelong attendees of their Church, and they passed their imposed modern Western Christian perspective on to the gaggle of seven children (out of eleven births) that they had been taught to produce by an iron doctrine of Tactical Fecundity encased in the velvet glove of Traditional Motherhood.


The serial births that Chung’s mother endured in the name of that philosophy combined with tuberculosis to prematurely end her life, and much of the care for her enfeebled and worn body but persevering spirit fell to young Margaret. Her father kept the family moving as he started and failed in venture after venture, desperately trying to feed his large family via the handful of professions allowed a Chinese man in the late nineteenth century: raising and selling vegetables; agricultural labour; and the selling of ‘traditional’ Chinese items.


Margaret tended to her mother, went to school when she could, and worked every other moment to try and keep the family afloat, all the while guided by an ambition to become what the Presbyterian Church had taught her family was the noblest profession of all: a medical missionary. To young Margaret, it represented a chance to travel to a native land she had never seen and help those crippled by disease, and to the Church it was a golden opportunity to use foreign hospitals as potential conversion centres. Church circulars consequently lionised the profession. Margaret was resolute – a doctor she would be.


Women in the medical profession were, by this point, nowhere near as rare as even three decades before. Several of the schools that had opened mid-century to provide medical training for women had already folded, their boards determining that they were no longer needed with so many first rank co-educational medical colleges available. In 1907, Chung entered the USC Preparatory Academy, a high school that had connections to the USC College of Physicians and Surgeons. Graduates from the preparatory school could attend the college, meaning that Chung could go to medical school straight from high school, a situation common enough at the close of the nineteenth century but that was increasingly rare in the professionalised medical atmosphere of the early twentieth century.


Entering the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1911, Chung began adopting the dress and mannerisms of the predominantly male colleagues around her, creating a persona she named ‘Mike’, sporting pulled-back hair and a man’s sport jacket, and cultivating a taste for swearing, hunting and bawdy humour. Graduating from USC in 1916, she instantly applied for a position as a medical missionary to China, only to be peremptorily rejected.



Stunned by the rejection, Chung set about finding a new direction in life, working as a virtually unpaid surgeon in Chicago, as a psychological evaluator at a juvenile detention facility, and finally as a surgeon for the Santa Fe Railroad, where she developed a reputation for treating the company’s Mexican workers with a compassion they were unaccustomed to receiving from the rest of the staff. She also slowly created a practice treating travelling performers and Hollywood professionals who would be critical to the establishment of her famous practice in San Francisco.


She fell in love with that city on a visit in the early 1920s and in 1922 decided to relocate her practice there, settling into the heart of Chinatown and revelling in the Bohemian delights of Nob Hill and Little Italy, exploring the romantic attraction to women that she felt, but which was condemned both by the religion she grew up in and the traditional Chinese community she was living among. As an unmarried, unconventional professional woman, her activities and Western leanings were viewed with distrust among the residents of Chinatown, even as her client base among the city’s white population swelled.


Decking her office out in traditional Chinese trappings, Chung’s practice was a cult destination for those seeking the benefits of Western medicine among the lush trappings of the exotic Orient. She was also known as one of the few doctors in the city willing to lend a compassionate ear to women seeking birth control and abortion, routinely referring such cases to doctors she knew to be professional and discreet. By 1931, Chung had established a routine that appeared glamorous from the outside but that she felt was personally unfulfilling: a thriving practice; proximity to the Bohemian and queer friendly nightlife of San Francisco; and a degree of material prosperity beyond the dreams of her hard scrabble childhood.


That year, however, her life was upturned when Japan invaded Manchuria and an unemployed pilot sought Chung out to ask her how he might volunteer his services in the defence of China. She had no connections with the Chinese military to speak of, but what she could do was cook him a nice meal and listen to his problems as a pilot in the depths of the Depression. Soon not only he, but his other pilot friends as well, made a ritual of taking dinner with Dr Chung. One fateful night they joked that they’d like to adopt her as their mother but were worried about lacking a father as a result. She fired back, calling them her Fair-Haired Bastards, and a legend was born.


The order of the Fair-Haired Bastards was duly founded, an ever-growing collection of pilots who met at ‘Mom’ Chung’s once a week to eat a full meal, make connections, and hear her exhortations to get revenge on the Japanese invaders of her parents’ native land. Over the 1930s, the association grew as Chung adopted thousands of pilots, submariners, admirals, and eventually celebrities (including a young Ronald Reagan) and congressmen. She was personally responsible for covertly drafting over 100 pilots to serve in the famous Flying Tigers squadron that served in China before America’s entry into the Second World War.


With the entry of the United States into the war in 1941, Chung was launched from the realm of local curiosity to that of national celebrity. She became a potent symbol of Chinese–American cooperation to a nation that tended to lump the Chinese and Japanese together in one tangled lump of Otherness. The thousands of care packages she personally packed to send off to her sons overseas became the stuff of newspaper articles and even comic book features, and her web of military and governmental connections gave her a lobbying power unavailable to most Americans, let alone women of Chinese descent.


At the war’s beginning, she parlayed that influence into momentum for the creation of a new military volunteer organisation, known to history as the WAVES. Though primarily associated with the name of its first director, Mildred McAfee, it was Chung who first proposed the idea of a naval branch for women, and collected enough political support to see that idea through the House and Senate. She expected to subsequently serve in the organisation that she had spearheaded, only to find her applications mysteriously rejected, perhaps because of rumours about her sexuality, perhaps simply because of her age (she was over 50 by the time of the organisation’s founding).


Chung threw her time into the war effort, speaking where she could, tending to the injuries of returned adopted sons, raising money for the support of China, and writing thousands of letters to her boys on the front lines who otherwise would have received none. Her medical practice suffered as a result, and by war’s end she was on the verge of having to give up her home when the Fair-Haired Bastards heard about it and raised money among themselves to pay her mortgage.



The war’s end was the summit of Chung’s hopes and the culmination of a decade and a half of behind-the-scenes support work, all carried off at the expense of her career as surgeon and physician. The next fourteen years saw her grow physically more frail, only able to work a couple of hours each day, while she threw herself into an intense but platonic relationship with singer-actress Sophie Tucker. The Chinese background that had led to the success of her practice and catapulted her to fame during the war worked increasingly against her over the 1950s, as Americans viewed China as another arm of the great Red Terror, and viewed with menace what they once found bursting with sumptuous exotic charm. She wrote an autobiography that would have been a best seller in 1944, but could not even find a publisher in the hardened climate of the 1950s.


Dr Margaret ‘Mom’ Chung underwent surgery for ovarian cancer in 1958 and, realising that the end could not be far off, set about putting her affairs in order, including plans for a funeral that would be as much a tribute to the thousands of adopted sons who had taken comfort in her words and acts of kindness as a summation of her life. She died on 5 January 1959. Her casket was borne to its final resting place by the mayor of San Francisco, two admirals of the navy, two privates and an ensign.


FURTHER READING:


The story of Dr Chung’s life was exhaustively researched and brought to light by the efforts of Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, whose 2005 Doctor Mom Chung of the Fair-Haired Bastards: The Life of a Wartime Celebrity is a powerful telling of the hardships faced by Chung’s parents, and the improbably potent bond between Chung and her thousands of adopted sons. Like a lot of writing brought forth from the academic system, it tends to repeat its theses over and over again with slightly different wording, but the attraction of the story, and Wu’s incredible work unearthing Chung’s unpublished autobiography and hunting down surviving Fair-Haired Bastards more than compensates.


Chung's story is also one of 140 stories of women in Medicine I told in A History of Women in Medicine and Medical Research, available on Amazon and from Pen and Sword books US or UK!




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