First in their Field: Margaret Chung

The first female Chinese American physician in California, Margaret Chung was a healer, a patriot, a political activist, a humanitarian, a socialite and a “Mom” to hundreds of military pilots who served in the 30s and 40s.

Born in Santa Barbara to Chinese parents, Margaret attended school and worked several jobs while caring for her dying mother and eleven siblings. Chung graduated from University of Southern California College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1916, a time when some Chinese parents still sold daughters into domestic service or prostitution and went on to become the first Chinese-American female physician in the United States.

440px-Margaret_Chung_(Los_Angeles_Herald,_14_Oct_1914)_(cropped).pngAfter graduating from medical school she moved to Chicago where she worked at the Mary Thompson Women’s and Children’s Hospital. In 1917 she worked as the resident assistant in psychiatry for the first Juvenile Psychopathic Institute of the State of Illinois at the Cook County Hospital. In 1918 we moved back to California where she started working as a surgeon at the Santa Fe Railroad Hospital. She treated many celebrities during her time at the hospital, including silent film start Mary Pickford.

She was the first doctor to open a Western-style medical clinic in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Dr. Chung’s practice expanded to include the city’s social elite, prominent members of the gay community, and even Hollywood celebrities. In medical school, she was the only woman in her class. Margaret had experimented with dressing in men’s attire and calling herself “Mickey.” In San Francisco, she routinely switched between masculine and Hollywood-type glamour personas at her lavish Sunday dinner parties, where politicians and celebrities mingled with the average G. I. Joe during WWII. Chung had a strong sense of belonging to the diverse world she transcended.

920x920.jpgDenied travel to China, Margaret nevertheless achieved recognition during the second Sino-Japanese War (1937 – 1945) for her patriotic activities on behalf of the U.S. and China. She developed friendships with many aviators by “adopting” over 1,500 “sons” – the so-called Fair-Haired Bastards. She sent them letters, care packages, and 4,000 hand-written Christmas cards. Some of her notable adopted military sons included Melvin Mass,  U.S. Representative from Minnesota; Chester Nimitz, Fleet Admiral of the United States Navy; William Sterling Parsons, Rear Admiral and bomb commander of Enola Gay; and President Ronald Regan.

A zealous supporter of equal rights for women, “Mom” Chung lobbied for the passage of a bill allowing women to join the military and Naval Reserve. Even though Senator Maas, adopted “son” No. 447, sponsored the bill creating the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, better known as the WAVES, Margaret was neither given credit, nor permitted to join due to age, race, and suspected lesbianism.

In October of 2012 Chung was commemorated with a plaque in the Legacy Walk,  an outdoor public display which celebrates LGBT history and people in Chicago.


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