My mother earned two medical degrees, the first in 1936 and the second twelve years later. Mom valued her second diploma and hung it on her office wall, but she always displayed the 1936 Chinese diploma in the most prominent spot.
Its appearance is unique, entirely hand-lettered with graceful Chinese characters, even the numbers. A small photo of Mom adorns the document and shows just the neck of the white silk dress she wore to the graduation ceremony. The high neck of the garment, with its traditional closure, shows she was wearing a Chinese dress under her black graduation robe.
Why a Chinese dress and diploma, you ask, when clearly from her photo my mother is not ethnically Chinese?
I cherish the memory of my father’s face lighting up whenever he told the story of how they met in 1929 in Philadelphia. She was a first-year student at Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and he was in the last year of his residency. A year later they married and left for China where they’d been posted to Chengdu as medical missionaries.
In Chengdu they began two years of intensive language study. Then Mom entered West China Union University as a second-year medical student and Dad joined the medical faculty. He was her teacher for some classes, which were relatively small and held in Chinese, and always her supporter.
Mom’s medical school cohort, the class of 1936, consisted of six women, including her, and just three men—a ratio unheard of in the U.S. at the time. During those four years she developed deep, abiding friendships with her classmates that were grounded in mutual respect. I venture to say her student experience was unique among missionaries—and by extension Dad’s was also.
She cherished these friendships, holding them close to her heart. I was lucky to see the poignant reunion she had with her friends in China in 1980, so I know this diploma represented so much more to her than academic achievement.
Whenever she glanced at the plaque on the wall, she must have been flooded with memories—the deep friendships, her love of the Chinese culture, happy times and adventures with my father, and professional achievement and respect. After graduating, she was welcomed into the Chengdu medical community and held positions of responsibility at a time when women doctors in the U.S. struggled to gain such respect and were denied the professional opportunities available to men.
When my family returned to the U.S. after World War II, Mom’s diploma was not sufficient to qualify her for a medical license—despite the fact West China Union University taught western medicine and was chartered through the University of New York system.
Mom applied to the school where she began, Women’s Medical College, asking to join the fourth-year class. She was accepted, graduating with the class of 1948, and obtained her second medical license.
In the immediate decades that followed, she too experienced the gender discrimination endured then by most women doctors in the U.S.—something rare in her years in China. With the fierce determination that was her trademark, she persevered. In her later years a respected pediatric cardiologist and emeritus professor, she taught cardiac morphology at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh until her death just short of her ninetieth birthday.