Dr. Margaret Chung: First American Born Chinese Woman Physician

Black and white image of a young woman in a long-sleeved, long white dress, dark hair pulled back, standing in front of a brick wall.

“Chinese Girl to Become Reporter,” Los Angeles Herald (Los Angeles, CA), October 10, 1905.

The following is a guest post from Meg Metcalf, a reference librarian in the Main Reading Room, currently on detail in the Serial and Government Publications Division.

“Margaret Jessie Chung has Aspirations,” the Los Angeles Herald headline read on October 10, 1905. Margaret was a 16-year-old, first-generation Chinese American who was teaching English in the “Chinese colony” of Los Angeles, California, while working to help support her large family. She went on to graduate from the University of Southern California’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1916 with an M.D., becoming the first known American born Chinese woman physician in the United States. At the time, she was 26 years old, and the only woman and only person of color in her entire graduating class. Facing enormous odds and coming from an impoverished family, Margaret was able to partially fund her early education by winning a scholarship selling subscriptions to the Los Angeles Times newspaper. She would go on to become one of the most well-known physicians of her time, serving as doctor, friend and surrogate mom to many of her military and celebrity friends. Despite the immense popularity and socio-political influence she enjoyed in her lifetime, Dr. Margaret Chung is a relatively unknown figure today. Luckily, curious people can find photographs, illustrations, quotes, residential addresses, details of her renowned Sunday dinners, and even comic books featuring Margaret in the Library of Congress Collections.

Margaret funded the first two years of her education by winning the Los Angeles Times scholarship to attend the Preparatory Academy, affiliated with USC. Accompanying the July 8, 1908 Los Angeles Times article is a photograph of teenage Margaret and a lovely quote from her supportive frie­­nds: “Margaret is exceptionally bright in her studies, but unless she wins her way for next year, her hope of an education will have to be laid aside.”  Unlike many of her more affluent classmates, Margaret had to work to support herself throughout her school years.  Despite this, Margaret still dedicated a substantial amount of time to a number of causes. In 1912, the Southern Herald Reported Margaret was, “at the head of the movement which proposes to form an organization of American women for the purpose of assisting and encouraging the women in China in making the best use of their newly acquired right to the ballot.” The article also noted Margaret’s participation in the Women’s Auxiliary League of the Chinese American League of Justice in Los Angeles, a member of the Chinese Protective Association and the Chinese Women’s Reform Club. Margaret was also a member of the Willard Literary Society, and active in athletics, particularly basketball.

After graduating with her M.D in 1916, Margaret was unable to find work locally. By November of that year Margaret moved to Chicago, where she had an internship at the Mary Thompson Hospital offered by Dr. Bertha Van Hoosen. Van Hoosen was a lifelong advocate for women doctors and the founder of the American Women’s Medical Association. In Chicago, Margaret was supported by other women navigating discrimination in the medical field. May Michael, a Jewish doctor from England, supported Margaret’s character in an application to the Illinois State Board of Health. Rachelle Yarros, a Jewish physician born in Russia, helped her obtain her medical residency, and would go on to be associated with Jane Addam’s and Ellen Gates-Starr’s Hull House.

Margaret was apparently quite popular at the hospital, where she was, “…a favorite with nurses and interns to the degree that the hospital, for the first time, made a ruling that two people must not sleep in a single bed” (Tzu-Chun Woo, 2005, pg. 64). This ruling is potentially the earliest known written reference to Margaret’s sexuality, which many have speculated was lesbian. While a historical figure’s sexuality can never be fully known, additional sources which support the claim that Margaret was likely a lesbian include the FBI’s “Dr. Margaret Chung File,” (United States  Department  of  Justice, Federal  Bureau  of  Investigation, no. 65–35400, National Archives) and Census Records from the 1920s which indicate Margaret was living with another unmarried woman. Not only was she a friend to open lesbians like Elsa Gidlow, but her interests, profession, dress and mannerisms caused continued speculation as to her sexuality, as did her remaining unmarried. Although Margaret never married, she still created a family of thousands of surrogate children who called her Mom.

A comic book drawing of a Chinese American woman walking toward us in front of an orange background with planes flying above her.

“Mom Chung and her 509 ‘Fair-Haired Foster Sons,'” Real Heroes, February/March 1949, p. 9.

On September 22 1940, the San Antonio Light reported that Margaret Chung was “Mother” to over 466 sons. The U.S. entered World War II in 1941 and, “During the war, the members of the group multiplied until they numbered some two thousand, all of whom came to think and speak of Dr. Chung as Mom.” (Independent Woman, Vol. 25, 1946, pg. 23). What initially began as a joke among Margaret’s small circle of surrogate “sons” in California would grow into a kinship network that would include hundreds, and eventually thousands of people. Each son had a number, and a place in Margaret’s heart. The newspapers report that Margaret would send and receive letters and gifts from her “sons” from all over the world. Her adopted sons (and eventually daughters) included, “Some of the most colorful personalities across the nation” (Chicago Daily Tribune, December 9, 1957). In addition to her regular Sunday suppers, Margaret’s home was the venue for many a social soiree, including a party for the cast of Kiss me Kate and the wedding of Pulitzer Prize winning author Carl Clinton Van Doren (New York Times, February 28, 1939, p. 26). According to an article in the Palm Springs Desert Sun (January 28, 1958, p. 12) Sophie Tucker wrote, Some of These Days, while a guest at Margaret’s.

“A Woman Who’s Mother to 466 Sons,” San Antonio Light (San Antonio, TX), September 22, 1940, p. 58. Retrieved from NewspaperARCHIVE.

Margaret provided an enormous amount of support to her sons in the military, and she herself very badly wanted to enlist. Margaret had first applied to join the Navy in March 1942, but was denied. Never one to give up easily, Margaret called on a few of her sons to create and ultimately pass the legislation that would create the W.A.V.E.S. (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Se­­­rvice), the WWII women’s branch of the United States Naval Reserve. The W.A.V.E.S. were established on July 21, 1942 by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on July 30. Despite the fact that the W.A.V.E.S would never have existed without Margaret’s powerful influence, she herself was rejected from serving due to her Chinese ancestry. Black women were also barred from serving in the W.A.V.E.S. until 1944. Although whiteness wasn’t included in the written requirements as a qualifier for service, the recruitment policies and enrollment statistics tell a different story. Of the estimated 90,000 W.A.V.E.S. who served, only 72 were Black women.

Any woman surgeon . . . bucks heavy odds of lay prejudice and professional resentment at usurpation of what many consider to be a man’s undisputed field and when that woman is an American of Chinese descent she is granted even fewer mistakes and less leisure.
-Margaret Chung, Los Angeles Times, 1939.

In January 1959, newspapers marked the passing of Dr. Margaret Chung, noting her lifetime full of achievements, service, friendship and celebrity. Although Margaret eventually wrote an autobiography, it was never published. I encourage you to learn more about the amazing life of Dr. Margaret Chung, and other hidden historical figures using Library of Congress Collections. Get started searching historical newspapers on Chronicling America and share what you find using #ChronAm. For research tips and suggestions, write to our librarians at ask.loc.gov/newspapers-periodicals.

Sources Consulted:

Resources for Further Research:

  • Hear from the WAVES! The Veterans History Project includes contributions from 829 veterans of “WAVES (Navy Reserves)” https://go.usa.gov/xVUZm
  • Actress Anna May Wong played Margaret in the 1939 film, King of Chinatown. See photographs of the stunning Anna May Wong by searching loc.gov/photos.
  • Learn more about the Chinese Exclusion Act, the passage of which barred Margaret’s parents from obtaining U.S. Citizenship in their lifetimes: //guides.loc.gov/chinese-exclusion-act.

*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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One Comment

  1. Mary Begaye Gallegoes
    June 7, 2022 at 9:40 am

    Loved this story. Wow, I’d like to see a movie of her & all the persons. Or a PBS bio. Thank you.

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