To help celebrate Asian Pacific Islander Month, which was in May, and Pride Month, which is June, this month we’re exploring the life of Margaret Chung. She was not only the first American-Born Chinese female doctor, but also established a program which paved the way for women in the military.
Fun fact: The biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in the United States—whom we profiled back in February 2021—The Doctors Blackwell by Janice P. Nimura, was just named a Pulitzer Prize finalist!
“Women of every nation, every country, should learn medicine, so that they can teach the women of their countries and their races how to care for themselves and their children—how to improve the coming generation.” — Margaret Chung, 1914
The first of 11 children, Margaret Jessie Chung was born on October 2, 1889, in Santa Barbara, California, to parents who had emigrated from China in the 1870s. In 1902, the family moved to Los Angeles. Not long after, her parents became ill, so Margaret spent much of her childhood raising her younger siblings while dreaming of becoming a medical missionary in China or perhaps a newspaper reporter.
Despite these circumstances, she still attended the Seventh Street School and then the preparatory school at the University of Southern California. Young Margaret was known for being an excellent gymnast, speaker and was twice lauded in the Los Angeles Herald, once for a poem she wrote and again as being a promising young student. She won a scholarship to Southern California University and supported herself by working as a waitress, saleswoman and through prize money she won at speech contests.
In 1911, Margaret enrolled in the University of Southern California Medical School and was the only woman and person of color in her class; she was also believed to be the first Chinese woman to enter medical school in the state of California. Legend has it that she purposefully wore men’s clothing and was enrolled under the name “Mike” to hide her true identity. When she graduated in 1919, her true gender and race were revealed, which made it difficult for her to obtain residencies and internships in U.S. hospitals. She was also denied admission as a medical missionary by the Presbyterian missionary board.
Not willing to give up on her dream, Margaret moved to Chicago, where she conducted her internship at the Mary Thompson Women’s and Children’s Hospital and residency at Kankakee State Hospital. She also studied at a private clinic under Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen, herself a radical who was willing to train women as surgeons, something most other doctors wouldn’t do. While in Chicago, Margaret served as the resident assistant in psychiatry for the first Juvenile Psychopathic Institute of the State of Illinois at the Cook County Hospital and was later appointed state criminologist for Illinois.
In 1919, Margaret’s father died and she moved back to California to be with her family. She studied plastic surgery at the Santa Fe Railroad Hospital in Los Angeles. There, she treated victims of many horrific industrial accidents. Not long after, she opened her own practice, where she saw many actors, dancers and musicians of Hollywood’s early years, including Mary Pickford, and became known as a “physician to the stars.”
Not interested in catering to celebrities forever, in 1922, Margaret moved to San Francisco’s Chinatown to minister to the Chinese American immigrants, especially women, since she couldn’t serve in China itself. But there was a small problem: most Chinese didn’t trust Western medicine. She was far more successful with white patients, such as Sophie Tucker, Helen Hayes, and Tallulah Bankhead, who came to her seeking “exotic” treatments because she was Asian. In 1925, Margaret helped establish the first Western hospital in Chinatown, leading its OB/GYN and pediatrics unit.
During the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) when Japan invaded China, Margaret organized “rice bowl parties” to fundraise for the war effort in over 700 U.S. cities. Later, she was asked by U.S. Navy reserves ensign Steven G. Bancroft to help him become a member of the Chinese army, which she had no power to do. But she did befriend him and several of his fellow pilots. She treated them as her patients and accompanied them on hunting and camping trips. Soon they were as close as family.
Having been turned down when she asked to become a front-line surgeon in the war, Margaret settled for secretly recruiting pilots who became part of the famous “Flying Tigers” unit that defended China. The more than 1,500 men of the aviation, submarine and other units called her “Mom Chung” because she was so dear to them. Because she wasn’t married (and therefore had no husband for them to call “Dad”) they started calling themselves her “fair-haired bastards.” These men included Hollywood legends such as John Wayne and Ronald Reagan, political and military figures like Fleet Admirals Chester W. Nimitz and William “Bull” Halsey Jr., and even a rare “daughter” named Amelia Earhart.
During WWII Margaret supported the Allies and her “sons” by sending them letters and care packages and introducing them so they could help one another. She also lobbied Congress to allow women to volunteer in the military and helped establish WAVES, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services, the women’s branch of the naval reserves during World War II. This helped women later gain admission into the U.S. armed forces.
Despite this success, Margaret was not given credit for this achievement, nor was she allowed to serve in her own group. It is speculated this is because Margaret was a strong ally of the LGBTQIA+ community in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, has several very close relationships with women who were known lesbians, and the FBI investigated her in the 1940s to determine whether or not she was a lesbian, which was a serious accusation at the time. Margaret never confirmed or denied these rumors, and despite being briefly engaged, never married.
After the war, Margaret retired to a house in Marin County that her “adopted sons” bought for her. By this time she was well-known throughout the country and both a comic book series and movie were made about her life. She died on January 5, 1959, at the age of 70, from cancer. Among her pall bearers was Chester W. Nimitz, one of her “fair-haired bastards.”
It is said that Margaret was the inspiration for the character of Dr. Mary Ling portrayed by Anna May Wong in the 1939 film King of Chinatown. At least three Flying Fortresses were named “Mama Chung” in her honor by her “adopted” sons during World War II and a tunnel boring machine for the San Francisco Municipal Railway’s Central Subway was named “Mom Chung” after her in 2013. She was also honored with a plaque in the Legacy Walk in Chicago, which celebrates LGBTQIA+ history and its people.