Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health naming ceremony, September 8 2014, Boston
By Gerald Chan
I am delighted to speak here on behalf of my mother and my brothers. Thank you for being with us today. Your presence is a great honor to us.
Let me begin by telling you about my mother. She was trained as a registered nurse in a British hospital in northern China in the 1940s. That was the era when infectious diseases were the number one cause of death in the world. The medical training rendered my mother rather paranoid about hygiene as a means for disease prevention. When Ronnie and I were kids, whenever Dad took the family out to a restaurant, mother would have with her a small stainless steel container packed with ethanol-soaked cotton. During the interval between when Dad ordered the meal and the dishes were brought to the table by the wait staff, mother would take out her steel container, tear off a shred of ethanol-soaked cotton and wipe down the bowls, plates and chopsticks that we were going to eat with. I remember being quite embarrassed by her practice of on-the-spot sterilization. She finally stopped this practice sometime in the nineteen sixties. By then, she must have felt that the threat of infectious diseases in Hong Kong had sufficiently abated.
As a nurse, my mother used to give vaccinations to the neighborhood children. Cholera was still unchecked in Hong Kong in the 1950s and government vaccination programs had not yet achieved universal coverage. The neighbors would bring their children to our kitchen. Mother would boil her hypodermic needle in a stainless steel container on the kitchen stove and use it to vaccinate the kids. That was before we had disposable needles. The barrel of the hypodermic needle was made of glass and the needle was reused time after time with sterilization in boiling water in between. As you can imagine, the needle got blunted by repeated use which meant that the injection was extraordinarily painful. It was no wonder that many children screamed and wailed in our kitchen.
I offer these two vignettes of my mother’s work as a nurse to remind us that it was in fact sanitation and hygiene on the one hand and vaccines on the other which gave rise to the largest increase in life expectancy in human history. Long before the advent of modern medicine in the first half of the twentieth century, public health was the chief source of improvement to human health. Ironically, and in many unforeseen ways, we find ourselves today to have come full circle. I therefore heartily echo President Faust’s statement – this is the public health moment.
I would also like to tell you about my father. He grew up during turbulent times in China. Because he never had the opportunity to have further education, he became unfailingly committed to enabling others to be educated. Growing up, I saw friends coming to my father to borrow money for their children’s school fees. Going abroad for tertiary education was an expensive proposition in those days. Through the years, my father helped many young people to go abroad for their studies. His actions were powerful examples. It is therefore most fitting that a school should be part of his legacy.
In 1974, my father came to visit me when I was a student here in the School of Public Health. This building was a brand new building and I brought my father to see it. He was quite awed by Harvard, and quite proud that his son should be a student here. It is a visit that I shall not forget.
I count it my great privilege to have had the opportunity to study at the Harvard School of Public Health. It was here that I met my mentor, Dr. John B. Little, who inspired me to turn from studying physics to studying life science. It was also here that some of my lifelong outlooks were shaped, to wit, that even in business, return is not measured only in financial terms, but in human lives and human health. Our responsibility is not only towards the providers of financial capital, but also towards our fellow men.
In keeping with my mother’s work in improving people’s health and my father’s commitment to supporting education, my brothers and I thought it most appropriate to celebrate their legacy by making a gift to the Harvard School of Public Health. This gift will strengthen the research and teaching mission of the school and help to ensure that able students will not be precluded from being trained here for lack of financial means. They will be the future torchbearers of public health who will go forth from this school to improve human health throughout the world. It is for them that we celebrate this gift today.