The story of T.H. Chan

Mr. T.H. Chan
Mr. T.H. Chan

Soon after the largest gift in Harvard’s history was made to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the fall of 2014, many people began wondering: Who is T.H. Chan for whom the School has been renamed?

Born in the 1920s, T.H. Chan grew up during turbulent times in China and did not have the opportunity to pursue higher levels of education. He settled in Hong Kong in 1948. Starting from an entry-level job in a bank, he eventually built a successful real estate business.

According to his son Gerald, SM ’75, SD ’79, his father was a man “unfailingly committed to enabling others to become educated.”

“Growing up, I remember seeing friends coming to my father to borrow money for their children’s school fees,” Gerald recalled. “My father never turned down such requests including requests for support to pursue tertiary education abroad which was at that time an expensive proposition relative to what people in Hong Kong were making. His actions spoke powerfully to my brother Ronnie and me about enabling others to have an education.”

It is easy to see how Gerald Chan and his brother Ronnie developed a deep commitment to education and public health growing up in their household.

Mrs. T.H. Chan was trained as a nurse in a British hospital in Northern China in the 1940s. It was a time when infectious diseases were the leading cause of death in the world. In the 1950s, government vaccination programs in Hong Kong had not yet achieved universal coverage. Gerald remembers his mother giving cholera vaccinations to the neighborhood children in the kitchen of their home.

“She would boil her hypodermic needle on the kitchen stove,” Gerald reminisced of that era before injection needles were disposable. “The syringe was made of glass and the needle made of stainless steel. The needle would be reused time after time with sterilization in boiling water in between. The needle got blunted with repeated use, which meant the injection was extraordinarily painful. No wonder kids screamed and wailed in our kitchen.”

By the mid-1970s, Gerald was studying at Harvard School of Public Health. Inspired by his mentor, Professor Jack Little, he switched his studies from physics to radiation biology. “My father came to visit me. The Kresge Building was brand-new and I brought my father to see it. He was awed by Harvard and quite proud that his son was studying there,” Gerald said. “I count it a great privilege to have studied at Harvard. If I were a young man applying to Harvard today, I don’t think I could get in. The students now are so brilliant.”

After the $350 million gift to the School was announced, Gerald heard from a family friend what happened after his father’s visit to the School, a story he had not known before.

“I had received a fellowship for my doctoral studies at the School of Public Health,” Gerald said. “On his way back to Hong Kong from Boston, my father stopped in San Francisco to visit his old friend Mr. S.P. Wong. For the few days that he stayed with Mr. Wong, he could not stop talking about my fellowship. On the one hand, he was proud that I had received a fellowship, which in his mind was an honorific scholarship. On the other hand, he was profoundly disturbed that my taking the fellowship meant that I had displaced someone who, without the support of the fellowship, would not have the means to attend this School. He kept saying to his friend, ‘We have the means to pay tuition. Why is Gerald taking the scholarship away from someone else?’ That inner struggle between feeling proud of his son on the one hand and on the other hand feeling disturbed that social justice had been abrogated is a poignant portrait of my father.”

Mr. T.H. Chan died nearly 30 years ago. His sons are pleased that the gift through the family’s Morningside Foundation will enable his legacy to continue in a meaningful way.

“In keeping with my mother’s work to improve 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,” said Gerald.

“My father would be very pleased with this gift and all the good works that this gift will enable.”

Madeleine Drexler is editor of Harvard Public Health

Photo: Courtesy of Chan family