Universities in Hong Kong

An army of doctors to reform medicine in China: the 130-year history of the faculty of medicine at the University of Hong Kong

  • New book covers intriguing story of respected faculty, which counts Sun Yat-sen among graduates and later weathered Japanese occupation
PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 December, 2018, 6:32am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 December, 2018, 6:32am

130 Years of Medicine in Hong Kong: From the College of Medicine for Chinese to the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine

Author: Frank Ching

Publisher: Springer Nature Singapore

Veteran journalist Frank Ching has published a book documenting the history of the faculty of medicine at the University of Hong Kong. The College of Medicine for Chinese, the precursor of the faculty, opened its doors in 1887. At the time, the British doctors who founded the college saw the colony as a stepping stone to mainland China, where millions of sick and suffering patients required treatment.

Founding dean Dr Patrick Manson had a vision of the college’s graduates forming an “ever-increasing army” that would “reform medical practice in China and be the pioneers of science”.

The college’s first batch of students included Sun Yat-sen, who became the founder of modern China. In 1913, the college became part of the new HKU.

The university’s faculty of medicine, which celebrated its 130th anniversary last year, emerged as one of Asia’s finest after weathering financial difficulties, the Japanese invasion and the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome.

The following are excerpts from Ching’s book.

The genesis of the college

The College of Medicine for Chinese was founded by Dr Patrick Manson and like-minded doctors who gave freely of their time and service. The College, like the Alice Memorial Hospital in which it was housed, was supported by the London Missionary Society. Many missionaries yearning to deliver the word of God to China’s teeming masses saw the British colony as a path into the mainland. Manson, who spent more than two decades in Hong Kong and China, was not a missionary out to save Chinese souls but a medical man who saw Hong Kong as a stepping stone to China’s millions of maimed and sick bodies.

The foundation stone of the Alice Memorial Hospital, on the corner of Hollywood Road and Aberdeen Street, was laid on June 3, 1886 by Sir William Henry Marsh, then serving his second stint as Officer Administering the Government. The Reverend John Chalmers, who represented the London Missionary Society which operated the hospital, made another announcement related to the Alice Memorial Hospital. “It is intended to make it a school of European medicine and surgery,” he said.

That was the genesis of the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese. This announcement was welcomed by Sir William Marsh, the acting governor. Up to then, the colony offered no tertiary education and the proposed medical college would be the first such institution.

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The first intake, in 1887, consisted of 12 students. Among them, Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary who became the founding father of the Republic of China after the Qing dynasty of the Manchus collapsed in 1911, emerged as the most distinguished academically. The young man, after returning to Cuiheng Village in Xiangshan County in southern China following a sojourn in Hawaii, proved himself literally an iconoclast by breaking the statue of a god being worshipped by fellow villagers and had to flee to Hong Kong. In the British colony, he studied at the Diocesan Home and then the Government Central School and was baptised as a Christian by Dr Charles Hager, an American Congregationalist missionary. He then enrolled in the education programme of the Canton Boji Hospital under the American Presbyterian missionary John Kerr. However, when Sun learned of the opening of the College of Medicine for Chinese, he returned to Hong Kong and enrolled in it.

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A formal inauguration of the College of Medicine for Chinese was held on October 1, 1887. Dr Patrick Manson, in his capacity as dean, delivered a lengthy, thoughtful address. He began by announcing the birth of the medical college and asked for sympathy and support from both the government and the private sector, arguing that Hong Kong should be not only a hub of commerce but also “a centre of light and guidance to China in all matters pertaining to civilisation”. Manson proved sensitive to Chinese sentiments. “That European science and other portions of our civilisation will be adopted by China is certain,” he asserted, “but the rate at which the conversion is to be effected is uncertain.”

Manson possessed a vision of the college’s graduates forming an “ever-increasing army” that would “reform medical practice in China and be the pioneers of science”.

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As the end of the first academic year neared, plans were made to hold the first professional examinations. The examinations were in two parts, written and oral. The 12 students were each examined in seven subjects.

Of the 12 students who took the examinations, six passed in all subjects, one failed botany and the remaining five failed the examinations as a whole. The top student was John Wong, who was born in the United States and who had scored 82 per cent. Next was Kong Wing-wan, who was born in neighbouring Guangdong province and had studied English in Hong Kong before enrolling in the college. He scored 75 per cent. The student who came in third, with 71 per cent, was Sun Yat-sen. He graduated from the college in 1892.

Becoming part of HKU and surviving the second world war

The college agreed to become part of the new University of Hong Kong in 1913. The university faced bankruptcy within years of its establishment and was rescued by Loke Yew, a business magnate in British Malaya. Many of the students came from Malaya while quite a few others were sponsored by Chinese government institutions. In the 1920s, the Rockefeller Foundation endowed chairs in surgery, medicine as well as obstetrics and gynaecology, providing a major boost to the faculty of medicine. The Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s created a wave of refugees into the British colony. The war drew closer to Hong Kong and, by December 8, 1941, when the university was holding examinations, Japanese bombs began falling on Hong Kong itself.

As soon as the Japanese invasion began, the university halted its operations. During the following three years and eight months, Japan occupied Hong Kong. With the exception of a few who managed to flee Hong Kong, most educators who were nationals of countries at war with Japan were kept in internment camps. The bulk of the students fled across the border into China, where medical students generally were able to continue their studies at mainland universities such as Zhongshan University and Lingnan University in Guangzhou. The university reopened its doors in 1948.

Medicine under ‘one country, two systems’

With the approach of 1997, the university’s faculty of medicine, like the rest of the medical profession, prepared for Hong Kong’s unification with China under the concept of “one country, two systems”. The medical profession took steps to safeguard its autonomy. The Hong Kong Academy of Medicine was created to supervise training and to set postgraduate qualifications. The powers of the Hong Kong Medical Council were enhanced to include postgraduate medical education. While previously British-educated doctors were automatically qualified to practise in Hong Kong, they lost this right in 1997. China-trained doctors demanded but were refused similar rights after 1997. The Chinese government did not intervene since everything was done in accordance with the one country, two systems policy and the Basic Law. So although Hong Kong is now part of China, its medical profession is sealed off from that on the mainland.

The opening of the 21st century saw Hong Kong struck first by the H5N1 avian flu, which was suspected to have been imported from the mainland, followed by Sars. The medical faculty played its due role, advising the government on the chicken cull and, where Sars was concerned, identifying the coronavirus responsible.

The university now runs a hospital in mainland China, the University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital. The current hospital chief executive is Professor Lo Chung-mau, chair professor at the university’s department of surgery. The hospital employs more than 500 doctors from the mainland and overseas, including more than 100 Hong Kong doctors. Truly, these doctors can be seen as Manson’s “ever increasing army” that would “reform medical practice in China and be the pioneers of science.”