To Boldly Go
Dr. Me-Iung Ting, class of 1918, stopped at nothing when it came to improving the health of women and children in wartime China
At the Mount Holyoke Convocation of Science and Human Values in the fall of 1952, Dr. Me-Iung Ting, class of 1918, was honored by the College for distinguished achievement in her career as a physician and administrator. The citation, presented by President Roswell G. Ham, captured her life’s achievements well.
As a physician and administrator, you have shown able and vigorous leadership in the improvement of medical treatment and hospitalization in Tientsin. You have saved the lives of countless Chinese women and children. More than that, you have not hesitated, even at personal sacrifice and risk, to serve the needy regardless of nationality.
One of twenty-nine Mount Holyoke alumnae honored at the event, which brought more than 700 guests to campus, Ting was in the company of other groundbreaking women in science—researchers, scholars, a medical missionary, a specialist in infectious disease. She spent her lifetime overcoming obstacles that included financial limitations, bloody wars, and communist takeover. Through it all her mission remained: to improve the lives of women and children.
As a young child in pre-revolutionary China, Ting watched in horror as her mother died in childbirth, an event that not only terrified her but later defined her life’s work. Healthcare was purely tailored toward men, and as a result women were dying in childbirth in great numbers due to a lack of medical resources. Female doctors were rare, and male doctors were not interested in women’s health, nor were female patients comfortable in their presence. Watching women and girls endure the suffering that came with being considered second-class citizens propelled Ting into a career that would quickly establish her as a trailblazer in women’s health during a time when women were seen as nothing more than property.
Ting began her education at Shanghai’s McTyeire School for Girls, a missionary school established in 1892 to educate the daughters of China’s wealthy. An older schoolmate, Li Tsuin Tsao—who went on to become a doctor herself—encouraged Ting’s interest in medicine and became her mentor later in life. But before Ting could fully devote herself to medicine she had to escape the marriage contract her father—a doctor trained in traditional Chinese medicine—had secured for her. Arranged marriages would be the norm for another thirty-five years and defined a woman as the property of her husband with the only expectation being that she produce a son. Ting had a greater vision for her life’s purpose, one that couldn’t be accomplished without an education. She refused the marriage, finishing her high school education without her father’s support.
Opportunities for pursuing higher education were limited at the time, especially for girls. After working with her former schoolmate Tsao for a year after high school, Ting traveled to the US for medical training as her mentor had done. More than 6,000 miles and several months later, Ting arrived in America.
Pursuing an American Education
In 1914 Ting began her studies at Mount Holyoke. Almost eighty years into its history and under the leadership of Mary Woolley, the institution had already made its mark in graduating women in the sciences. The College was also an institution committed to educating students from abroad, with its first international student arriving on campus just two years after Mary Lyon founded her seminary.
As a member of the first group of Chinese students at the College, Ting pursued premed studies under zoology professor Cornelia M. Clapp, class of 1871—a revolutionary academic who taught at the College for nearly forty-five years—and physiology professor Abby Turner, class of 1896, who later became her close friend and confidante, and to whom she would write dozens of letters over three decades.
While studying in the United States, Ting longed to put her training to use in China, which in 1910 had fewer than 500 modern physicians and a population of approximately 400 million. It is estimated that at that time, infant mortality rates were as high as 250 per 1,000 live births. Babies were delivered at home exclusively by midwives, a practice that had been around for centuries but that offered caregivers only informal training and provided patients no prenatal or postnatal care. Ting would fundamentally change the conditions under which women were cared for during pregnancy and birth, and she wrote and secured funds to publish Care of Infants and Children Baby Record Book, an early resource of its kind for new mothers in China.
Ting earned her medical degree from the University of Michigan. She gained obstetric experience at Woman’s Hospital and Infants’ Home in Detroit and completed a second internship at West Philadelphia Hospital for Women. Reluctant to pass up the opportunity for additional practical training, she accepted another internship, at Willard Parker Hospital in New York City focusing on infectious diseases, a particularly devastating problem in China. In a letter to Professor Turner, Ting wrote, “I expect to take up public health work after a few years. I think preventative medicine is the only modern medicine. I am much concerned of the preventative diseases in China. You must have heard of the pneumonic plague last winter. It makes my heart ache to see thousands dying because of ignorance.”
Committing to Women and Children
In 1922, after eight years of education abroad and ready to begin her work back home, Ting joined Dr. Tsao, her childhood mentor, at Peiyang Woman’s Hospital in Tientsin, a heavily populated port city in northern China. But a mere two months into their partnership, Tsao died suddenly, leaving Ting to take over the hospital’s management in addition to treating patients and doing her own lab work. Ting was devastated by Tsao’s death. In a letter to Turner on September 26, 1922, she wrote, “Her sudden death has been more than a shock to me. Often I blamed myself for not coming home a year earlier.” She continued, “She certainly was too young to leave this earth. Oh, I miss her and I feel that I have no more energy to carry on her unfinished task. Sense of loneliness overwhelmes [sic] at times.”
Within three months I have seen three thousand patients at clinic, delivered forty-five babies, operated ten times, made sixty calls outside.
Me-Iung Ting, class of 1918
But in the same letter, Ting also wrote of her professional accomplishments. “Within three months I have seen three thousand patients at clinic, delivered forty-five babies, operated ten times, made sixty calls outside,” she wrote.
Over the next several years, Ting’s obstetrical practice continued to emphasize the importance of prenatal care, and she included in her letters to Turner the often sad details of her cases. In an October 1925 letter, she wrote, “Within a week we had two maternal deaths and two fetal deaths. As I reviewed our cases I felt no other doctor could have saved them either. . . . The saddest part of our work here is that cases come to us too late and our people fail to understand that we are humans and we are not in position to do wonders.”
In 1935 Ting was appointed by Tientsin’s mayor as the first woman director of the Tientsin Infants Asylum, home to about one hundred girls who were orphans or whose families could not care for them. Under the previous administration unwanted girls lived in unsanitary buildings and were threatened by disease. Ting had no patience for such ineptitude.
Without hesitation, she reorganized the institution from top to bottom. Immediately she fought to eradicate measles, diphtheria, and meningitis in the home while also completely overhauling the staff. “I cleared the place of useless men and women who were there good for nothing,” she wrote in a July 15, 1935, letter to Turner, “I actually fired thirty-nine people within these two months.”
Soon, she wrote, without an “increase of household expenditure,” she had the main building torn down and a new one constructed that provided healthier living conditions, including windows that could be opened to allow fresh air in, helping Ting to fight and treat tuberculosis, her “greatest problem.”
Ting’s letters to Turner surged during this period, giving great insight into her life in pre-war China. She wrote of medical cases, politics, and the challenges of operating a hospital in an area plagued by poverty. On a more personal note, she wrote of her own health and of the two nieces she adopted, one of whom she named Abby after Professor Turner, and one, Mary Jean (now Jean Ting Margolis ’47), who would go on to graduate from Mount Holyoke with a chemistry degree. In a 2012 ceremony with President Lynn Pasquerella ’80 Margolis was presented with a plaque honoring her aunt.
Persevering Through Conflict
Ting’s work in China coincided with a period of near-constant war, the height of which was Japan’s invasion of China in 1937. In the first year of the Second Sino-Japanese War alone, Japanese soldiers killed 300,000 civilians and raped at least 80,000 women. By the end of World War II and Japan’s defeat, there were an estimated 10 million to 20 million Chinese civilians dead and entire villages decimated.
On August 26, 1937, Ting first mentioned the Japanese attack in her letters: “The actual fighting started July 28th at Tientsin in Chinese city. For two afternoons aerial bombings did damage to most important places.” In a letter one month later Ting describes the lengths that the Japanese went to in order to completely destroy nearby Nankai University. “Bombardment did not destroy all the buildings, so oil was used to do further destruction. Concrete work could not be destroyed by oil, so dynamites were used to do the finishing touch. The total destruction only took a few hours.”
For days we could not utter a word—we only looked at each others but uncontrolable [sic] tears would run down our cheeks.
Me-Iung Ting, class of 1918
Ting was distraught. “For days we could not utter a word—we only looked at each others but uncontrolable [sic] tears would run down our cheeks,” she wrote. In the destruction of the nearby university, Ting saw her own life’s work threatened. “We are experiencing suffering day to day,” she wrote. “We are not afraid to die. Our hospital was hit also by bombs. We did not move excepting moving our patients to basement at the time of bombardment.”
The Japanese, who wanted to occupy the hospital and gather information on powerful citizens of Tientsin, harassed Ting. In an effort to protect herself, she gave her house deed, money, and possessions to a trusted nurse along with pills necessary to kill herself should she be tortured. But while martial law ordered everyone off the streets, Ting demanded that the head of police grant her a pass so she could travel at any time to deliver babies.
Returning to America
Ting continued in Tientsin through eight more years of upheaval. On December 16, 1945, she began a letter to Turner, “I could hardly realize that this war is over and that we can resume normal living again.” But normalcy proved a near-impossible task, with destruction all around and resources limited. Yet Ting’s main concern continued to be her work. “I do not need material things,” she wrote, “But I do need medical journals.” As Mao Zedong came to power in 1949, she wrote in her letters of the increasing limits on her freedom. “I long for a change,” she wrote to Turner in September.
After months of petitioning, the United States granted Ting a special travel permit, and in 1950 she returned to America and spent the rest of her life working and teaching at hospitals in Florida, Mississippi, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, continuing to provide obstetrical care to women most in need.
Just as Ting left China, the country was launching a public healthcare system, making available many of the services Ting had devoted her life to providing. Twenty years earlier, Ting had written to Turner, “The rough estimate is every year two million babies died below one year of age. This statement is also true of preschool children.” By 1948, the infant mortality rate in the regions of the country where modern medical practices were used had fallen to 11 percent, and maternal mortality was at less than one percent. It would take decades more for the villages where Ting made her mark to reflect these same improvements. But Ting’s work had been essential in beginning to create this change. She spent her life helping Chinese women and children obtain adequate healthcare, calling upon the knowledge and confidence that was instilled in her in the classrooms of Mount Holyoke’s Clapp Hall.
—By Sara Barry ’94 and Jennifer Grow ’94
Sara Barry ’94 is a freelance writer in Massachusetts. Jennifer Grow ’94 is editor of the Alumnae Quarterly.
This article appeared in the spring 2015 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.
April 13, 2015
A most remarkable story. I would love to learn how Dr. Ting escaped from China after the Communist Revolution. I am surprised no one has written a book or produced a movie about her life. It is an epic story!
A correction. The annecdote about Dr. Ting giving the deed and suicide pills occured on her departure from China under the Communist regime circa 1950, not during the Japanese occupation. She left because the regime wanted to take over the hospital. The nurse did indeed use the pills and Dr Ting escaped to Hong Kong and eventually to the US via England.
remarkable woman, i believe Ting was also on the board of YWCA Shanghai before 1914, but I need to verify. Her achievement was not widely publicized in China due to her leaving the new China. I want to write about her in Chinese. Please contact me if you have more information about her: email@example.com