Illustration by Yaz Serrano
By Dingjian Xie
In the 1850s, the University of Edinburgh became one of the first destinations for early Chinese students who wanted to study overseas. Dr Wong Fun (Huang Kuan, 黄宽) or Wong Cheuk Hing (绰卿), the first Western trained doctor in China, was educated as a medical student at the University of Edinburgh between 1850 and 1855. After five years of studies, Dr Wong graduated with a thesis entitled ‘On Functional Disorders of the Stomach’. In doing so, he became the first Chinese student to graduate not only from Edinburgh, but from any institution across the whole of Europe (Tong, 2017). Yung Wing (Rong Hong, 容闳, 1828–1912), Wong’s former classmate, and one of the first Chinese graduates in the US, remembered him as “one of the ablest surgeons east of the Cape of Good Hope” (Wing 1909, p.33).
Wong Fun was born in 1828 at Xiangshan (today’s Zhuhai, a city near Macao) in Guangdong, which was one of the first provinces to open itself to foreign countries after the First Opium War (1839-1842) between the Qing empire and Britain. Around 1840, Wong started attending the Morrison Education Society School at Hong Kong, a school named after the first Protestant missionary of London Missionary Society (LMS), Robert Morrison. In 1847, Wong Fun, along with two other Chinese boys Wong Shing (Huang Sheng, 黄胜) and Yung Wing, went to the US. In doing so, they became the first three Chinese students to study in the Western World. In 1850 Wong Fun graduated in literature from Monson Academy in Massachusetts (Baxter, 1993). Unlike Yung Wing, who chose to study at Yale University, Wong left the U.S. and headed to another unfamiliar land.
Wong Fun arrives in Edinburgh
Wong himself did not make the choice to study in Scotland. Of the three patrons who financially supported his studies in the US, two were Scottish merchants, Andrew Shortrede and A. A. Campbell (Wing 1909, p.20). The original plan was to finance his US educationfor just two years. But after a request to extend this funding, a proposal was made by his patrons. Yung recorded in his autobiography: “[the r]eply came that if we wished to prosecute our studies after 1849, they would be willing to continue their support through a professional course, if we were willing to go over to Scotland to go through the University of Edinburgh” (Wing 1909, p.108). Wong initially registered as a student in literature, signing his name as ‘Wong Afun’ on 4 November 1850 when he matriculated.
In the mid-19th century, the Edinburgh medical school was unparalleled globally in the quality of research and quantity of doctors that it was producing. Edinburgh-based medical missions also played a significant role in missionary work in Africa and Asia. The Edinburgh Medical Missionary Society (EMMS), founded in 1841, helped to send medical missionaries to foreign countries, but also granted financial support to overseas students who wanted to study medicine in Scotland (Dwinght, Tupper & Bliss 1904, pp.219-220). The EMMS — medical practitioners, professors of the University, ministers of religion, men of business and retired army and navy personnel who had served in the Far East — guided and supported Wong Fun through his years in Edinburgh. It was the EMMS who continued to aid Wong financially after the funding from the patrons ceased in July 1852 (Baxter, 1993). It was reported that the bursaries given by the EMMS amounted to £ 97 2s 6d over three years to cover his fees and expenses (Walker, 1983).
Wong started his life in Edinburgh living at St John’s Hill. This was the home of Andrew Balfour, a retired printer born in South Carolina who was the father of Professor John Hutton Balfour. A director of the EMMS, Professor Balfour became one of Wong’s teachers at the University. In 1851, Wong Fun commenced his medical curriculum (Baxter, 1993). As recorded by the University, the courses Wong attended may include Anatomy, Chemistry, Theory of Medicine, Material Medical, Surgery, Practice of Physic, Midwifery, Botany, Pathology, Practical Anatomy, Natural History, Clinical Surgery, Military Surgery, Practical Chemistry, Practical Pharmacy. Wong performed well with prizes. In June 1855, Wong graduated. It was reported:
“The high station which Dr Wong Fun has won for himself among you as a most meritorious and modest student, and the high prizes and honours which has carried off, when he descended with you into the arena of competition in the classroom, afford us every hope that he, the first Chinese, I believe, who has ever graduated at a European University, will form, among his countrymen, a most able representative of the medical arts and sciences of the Western World.
I am sure that all of us, professors and graduates, do feel an additional interest in his future career and welfare, seeing that he returns to his own distant home, not as a physician merely, but also, I believe, as a Christian Medical Missionary”(Baxter, 1993).
After his graduation, Wong was appointed a clinical clerk to Professor James Miller in the New Surgical Hospital. At the same time, he continued his postgraduate work in pathology and anatomy. A position as a medical missionary in Guangzhou was offered by the London Missionary Society (LMS) to work at a missionary hospital in Kum-Lee-Fow. Wong accepted the offer. Before his return to China, on 23rd June 1856 a farewell meeting was held by the EMMS in the Queen Street Hall, at which Professor Balfour donated a full set of eye instruments on behalf of the Society and the President. After a short speech, Dr William Brown presented Wong with a copy of Bagster’s Polyglot Bible (Baxter, 1993). Wong sailed for China in August. After a long and perilous journey of 166 days he safely arrived in China.
Making changes in China
After two years service as a medical missionary of the LMS, Wong served at Hong Kong and then in Guangdong province (Thomson, 1888). In 1857, he first opened a dispensary at Hong Kong and next year moved to Guangzhou city to continue his work of medical missionary. Wong helped to rebuild the Kanl-li-Fau hospital, after the destruction of the Second Opium War between China and Britain (1856-1860). At the same time, he assisted a Dr John Glasgow Kerr in the work of the Canton Missionary Hospital (also called Pok Tsai Hospital) where he performed an embryotomy — considered as the first operation of its kind in China (Jimin & Liannte 1932, p.228). In 1860, Wong was appointed as medical adviser by Viceroy Li Hongzhang, who was one of foremost and influential officers of the time. He then worked as the first Chinese Customs Medical Officer, being responsible for the area of Canton. Although this lasted for just half a year, Wong fundamentally changed attitudes towards western medicine which had an impact throughout China.
In 1862 Wong returned to the Canton Missionary Hospital and continued to train Chinese doctors. In 1866, when a medical school (later called South China Medical College) affiliated to the Canton Missionary Hospital was opened, Wong helped Kerr in the school and taught anatomy, physiology and surgery. Wong persisted to devote his energies to the development of Chinese medical service in the rest of his life. He died on 12 October 1878 because of an “intensively severe carbuncle on the back of his neck” (Baxter 1993, p.43). As recalled by Yung, Wong’s contributions to the medical service in China “was highly respected and honored by Chinese and foreigners for his Christian character and the purity of his life” (Wing 1909, p.33).
Thomson J.C, 1888, Historical Landmarks of Macao, The Chinese Recorder, vol. 19, 121.
Baxter P.A, 1993, Dr Wong Fun (1828–1878) MD 1855, in University of Edinburgh Journal, University of Edinburgh Graduates’ Association, 41.
Dwight, H.D.; Tupper, H.A.; Bliss, E. M. (1904). Edinburgh Medical Mission Society. The Encyclopedia of Missions: Descriptive, Historical, Biographical, Statistical, Funk & Wagnalls Company.
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MacNair H.F, 1971, The Chinese Abroad: Their Position and Protection, A Study in International Law and Relations, Ch’eng Wen Publishing Company, Taipei.
Tong S, 2017, Early Chinese Students in Scotland – Part 1: the Students Themselves, University of Edinburgh Journal 48: 2, 107-8
Walker B.C, 1983, Letter to the Editor, University of Edinburgh Journal, Vol. XXXI, No. 1, 1983, 22.
Wing Y, 1909, My Life in China and America, Henry Holt and Company, New York.