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The Center on Colfax

Dr. Margaret Chung


Dr. Margaret Chung. Photo published in the Los Angeles Herald October 14, 1914.

  • Earned a medical degree

  • Surgeon for the Santa Fe Railroad Hospital

  • Opened a private practice in San Francisco

  • Organizer for Chinese American League for Justice, Chinese Woman's Reform Club, and Chinese Productive Asc. 

Dr. Margaret Chung was the first Chinese American woman to become a medical doctor in the United States, graduating with a medical degree in 1916. Once she graduated, Chung faced almost immediate discrimination, though she eventually completed her residency in Illinois and became a surgeon in California at the Santa Fe Railroad Hospital. Ultimately, she opened a private practice in San Francisco’s Chinatown. While treating Navy reserve pilots prior to World War II, she grew so close to seven of them that they called her “Mom Chung.” During her time in medical school, where Chung was often the only woman in attendance. She frequently wore traditionally masculine attire, appearing sometimes in a tailored suit (with a skirt), hat and cane. She also often went by “Mike” and engaged in behavior that was often more acceptable in men, such as drinking alcohol and gambling. As her career progressed, she more often wore what were considered feminine clothes and went by “Margaret” again, perhaps in an attempt to put patients and government officials at ease. Yet, even after stepping away from her questioning of gender norms, she never lived what was then considered a conventional life.

Dr. Chung was active in the early suffragist movement, helping to organize for the voting rights of Asian American women through the Women Auxiliary League of the Chinese American League of Justice, as well as the Chinese Women’s Reform Club and the Chinese Protective Association. More broadly, she also advocated for more professional and intellectual opportunities for women. In 1914, she told the Los Angeles Times that all women would do well to learn medicine “so that they can teach the women of their countries and their races how to care for themselves and their children - how to improve the coming generation.”

She never married and apparently had a number of relationships with women, though Dr. Chung never openly lived as a lesbian, perhaps fearing that it would damage her medical career and social standing. Still, she was friends with openly queer people, including lesbian poet Elsa Gidlow and actor Sophie Tucker. Some historians have argued that Chung’s relationships with Gidlow and Tucker went beyond friendship, but there is no clear evidence proving these claims either way. Still, rumors of her orientation remained powerful during her lifetime. The U.S. government denied Chung entry to the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, an organization that Chung herself helped to found prior to World War II, all because officials reportedly believed that she was gay.