Dr. Margaret Chung was the first known Chinese American female physician. She was born in 1889 to a family of poor Chinese immigrants. Her parents got sick often. As the oldest sister to six other siblings, Chung was supporting the family and helping raise her siblings by the time she was ten. She still found time to excel in school. The Los Angeles Herald made note of a poem she wrote and delivered at a church event, and in 1910, she won a public speaking contest.
In 1911, she enrolled in medical school. She was the first Chinese American woman to attend medical school in the state and the only woman in her class. While in medical school, Chung dressed in tailored suits and went by “Mike.” She did her residency in Chicago, and eventually moved to San Francisco’s Chinatown to set up her own practice.
In addition to treating the residents of Chinatown, Dr. Chung treated several early Hollywood celebrities, including Sophie Tucker, and actress and comedian. Chung kept a close and personal relationship with Tucker that may have been romantic, but that detail has been lost to history. Chung later had a similar relationship with the writer Elsa Gidlow, who published the first North American lesbian love poetry book. Dr. Chung was also sympathetic to women seeking birth control and abortion care, recommending doctors and convincing them to charge a reasonable price for the procedure.
In the 1930’s, Dr. Chung treated seven Navy reserve pilots, who took to calling her “Mom Chung” and themselves “Mom Chung’s Fair-Haired Bastard Sons.” Dr. Chung began “adopting” Navy pilots who joined the Flying Tigers, a group of American pilots who joined the Chinese Air Force to fight Japan before Pearl Harbor. Chung gave her sons jade buddha necklaces and regularly wrote to them. After Pearl Harbor, Chung kept on adopting sons in the Navy. By the end of the war, she had over 1,500 sons, who would recognise each other around the world by their necklaces.
Her many sons came to include high ranking Navy officers, including Fleet Admiral Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. She held house parties in San Francisco, where her sons would mingle with Congressmen. Dr. Chung used her influence to push for the establishment of the WAVES, the women’s branch of the Naval Reserves. Dr. Chung tried to join the WAVES, but she was rejected, out of a combination of her age, race, and suspected sexuality.
After the end of the war, Dr. Chung fell on financial hard times; she hadn’t practiced medicine much after becoming a minor celebrity. Hundreds of her sons pitched in money to buy her a home north of San Francisco.
Margaret Chung passed away in January 1959. In 2012, a plaque was dedicated to her in Chicago’s Legacy Walk, an outdoor public museum that celebrates LGBTQ history and culture.