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Penn Medicine’s Global Reach to the Far East

John Morgan, MD, whose passionate advocacy for establishing the first medical school in America swayed the trustees of the College of Philadelphia back in 1765, did not lack for ambition. As we look back to where and when the Perelman School of Medicine began, however, it’s likely that even Morgan would be amazed at the global reach of the school, its faculty members, clinicians, and alumni. Both Morgan and William Shippen Jr., MD, the second professor appointed by the trustees, were familiar with Europe. Both earned their medical degrees from the University of Edinburgh and broadened their experiences in cosmopolitan London, and Morgan was known to have visited such sites of learning as the University of Padua. But India, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, China? Those places would have been inconceivable.

EG.07.1937-Dr.-Rambo-and-staff-FPO_need permission

Victor Rambo (M 1921) and staff at the Christian Hospital Mungeli, India, 1937. Courtesy Christian Hospital Mungeli.

As the Perelman School of Medicine continues its yearlong celebration of its 250 years, one of the most tangible ways it is celebrating is through its new history book, To Spread the Light of Knowledge. Even such a large book, of course, must be selective, given the long and fascinating history of the school. One chapter that covers what may be a lesser-known portion of that history is the ninth, “Engaging Globally.” Some parts of the chapter are familiar -- for example, the major role Penn doctors and nurses played in establishing and maintaining the 20th General Hospital in India during World War II. As editor of Penn Medicine, I was delighted to include in our most recent issue an article called “From Burma to Penn: A Family Saga.” It is a kind of follow-up to the 20th General Hospital experience. The article relates how three children of a Burmese doctor who served there with Penn’s legendary I. S. Ravdin made their way to the University of Pennsylvania many years later, to pursue medical training or earn degrees. In fact, Jennifer Chu, MD, GME ’1979, became a professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Penn.

But the School of Medicine’s connection to the East began long before the Second World War. As Carol Benenson Perloff, the writer of To Spread the Light of Knowledge, points out on the first page of Chapter 9, James Bradford, who earned his medical degree from Penn in 1823, is believed to be the first American physician known to have practiced in China. In the early 20th century, Charles Harrison Frazier, dean of the medical school, sent Josiah McCracken (MD 1901) to the Canton Christian College to establish the University Medical School of Canton, China. (The University’s Christian Association was also involved.) When differences arose, the Christian Association transferred its financial support – and McCracken -- to Shanghai to establish the Pennsylvania Medical School of St. Johns University. This school lasted into the 1940s under McCracken’s leadership and the help of many Penn alumni.

Others who had an impact in the East included Carl Frederic Schmidt (MD 1918), who taught at the Peking Union Medical College, and Victor Rambo (MD 1921), who led the Christian Hospital Mungeli, in India. Closer in time, Nancy Woodward Hendrie (MD 1958) established The Sharing Foundation in Cambodia, which seeks to improve conditions for Cambodian children suffering from starvation and treatable diseases. She was the subject of a Penn Medicine article, as was Carl Bartecchi (MD 1964), who had been an army flight surgeon during the Vietnam War. Over the last two decades, Bartecchi has led efforts to provide medical help and training in Vietnam. 


Carl Bartecchi (M 1964) with Ngo Quy Chau, vice director of Bach Mai Hospital, Hanoi, 2012.

More recently, I’ve been corresponding with Dr. Myint Zan, who is on the Faculty of Law at Multimedia University in Malacca, Malaysia. He is the son of two Burmese physicians who did their training at Penn’s Graduate School of Medicine. The late San Baw, MD, GM 1958, was chief of orthopaedic surgery at Rangoon General Hospital and a pioneer in the use of ivory hip prostheses to replace fractured thigh bones. Dr. Zan’s mother, who died last year, was Myint Myint Khin, MD, GM 1955, and Penn Medicine will be running a brief obituary. She was former chair of the Department of Medicine at the Institute of Medicine in Mandalay and had also served as a consultant for the World Health Organization’s Southeast Asia regional office in New Delhi, India. According to a former colleague, she “built the strongest department of medicine in Burma, which produced hundreds and thousands of doctors meeting the international standard.”

In addition, Myint Myint Khin did not hesitate to voice her opinions -- including criticisms of the Burmese governments. But she also had a more sentimental side, which she expressed in later years by writing poetry, in English. Her book, Poetry For Me, was unveiled at a ceremony of the Myanmar Medical Association in 2013.

Benjamin Rush, MD, who was the fourth professor appointed to the new medical school in Philadelphia, would likely have been pleased. Pleased, that is, once he had gotten over his shock that a woman could be a physician. In an introductory lecture called “The Education Proper to Qualify a Young Man to Study Medicine,” Rush included such standards as reading, writing, and arithmetic -- but suggested poetry as well!

To Spread the Light of Knowledge: 250 Years of the Nation’s First Medical School, is a limited edition, large-format book, illustrated with archival documents, paintings, and photographs, many never previously compiled. Its pages chronicle the evolution of the Perelman School of Medicine from its beginning as a few lectures given in borrowed space to the extensive curriculum, research, and multidisciplinary clinical practice within today’s University of Pennsylvania Health System. To order a copy, visit

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