Diversity in medicine: Asians who made a difference

[5 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • This Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders Month, Providence highlights Asian figures who have paved the way for others in medicine, including:

  • Dr. Tetsuzo Akutsu, M.D., Ph.D.: a pioneer in artificial heart transplants. He was part of a team that accomplished the first successful such transplant.

  • Dr. Katherine Luzuriaga:  an immunologist and physician who has dedicated her career to AIDS research, most notably finding a cure for infants who contracted AIDS from their mothers before they were born.

Since 1977, May has been a time to celebrate the heritage, history and people of Asia and the Pacific Islands — and their contributions to the rich tapestry that makes up the United States. What first started as a week to honor Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders (AANHPI) has turned into a month of celebrations and learnings. In fact, May was a deliberate choice to honor AANHPI heritage as May 7, 1843, marked the immigration of the first Japanese individuals and families to the United States.

Today, AANHPI month celebrates and recognizes the distinct contribution of communities, people and cultures of Asia, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. This also includes the recognition of South Asian cultures, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

For more than a century, the ethnic groups of Asia and the Pacific Islands have made great contributions to medicine, and they continue to do so. Providence is shining a light on just a few of these pioneers.

Dr. Anandi Joshi, M.D.

Dr. Joshi was the first Indian female doctor to receive a medical degree in the United States. She graduated from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1886, despite contracting tuberculosis during her education.

Tetsuzo Akutsu, M.D., Ph.D.

Dr. Akutsu, a Japanese-American, was a world-renowned expert in artificial heart development. He started working on artificial heart and lung research while he was a student at Nagoya Imperial University Medical School in Japan. Then, after moving to the United States, he was a member of the team that implanted a total artificial heart in an animal — the first successful total artificial heart implant in the U.S. His work led to the second implantation of an artificial heart in a human in 1981.

Min Chueh Chang, Ph.D.

Dr. Chang was a Chinese-American reproductive biologist who helped develop the birth control pill. He also helped develop in vitro fertilization, and his research led to the birth of the first “test tube baby.”

Katherine Luzuriaga, M.D.

Dr. Luzuriaga is a Filipino-American pediatric immunologist who was part of the team that developed a cure for acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in babies who transmitted it from their mothers before birth. She works with medical students as a professor at the University of Massachusetts and director of the UMass Center for Clinical and Translational Science. She continues her public health research and data collection in how viruses cause persistent viral infections in children, including during the COVID-19 pandemic.

David Ho, M.D.

Dr. Ho, whose country of origin is Taiwan, is a doctor and virologist who has helped lead the treatment of AIDS. His research proved that when the virus enters the bloodstream, it quickly replicates, and he developed a drug treatment that is administered to AIDS patients when they are first diagnosed. He is the founding scientific director and chief executive officer of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, based in New York City.

Kazue Togasaki, M.D.

Dr. Togasaki was one of the first Japanese-American women in the U.S. to become a doctor — specifically, an obstetrician. During World War II, she was moved to a camp for Americans of Japanese descent, where she established a medical facility and delivered 50 babies within her first month. Throughout her career, she continued to face racism and hardship, and by the end of her life, she had delivered more than 10,000 babies.

Honoring AANHPI heritage

In addition to highlighting Asian-American and Pacific Islander figures in medicine, we also want to provide some resources for you to learn more about the heritage. The following is a list of books, recipes and websites.

Books to read

“I am Golden” by Eva Chen

“Minor Feelings” by Cathy Park Hong

“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee

“Crying in H Mart” by Michelle Zauner

Recipes to try

Bibimbap

Kimchi Stew

Beef Radish Stew 

Additional resources

A personal reflection in honor of AAPI Month

Asian American/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month

NPR’s Throughline: Our Own People

Asian Americans — PBS Documentary

A commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion

Providence SoCal Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Council (SoCal DE&I) is leading some of our efforts to raise cultural awareness and promote diversity to help build appreciation for cultural traditions and different ethnicities. We are also starting conversations to help educate people about different cultures and subgroups as a way to create a more welcoming, equitable and inclusive environment. We support diversity education and awareness initiatives, thus deepening our ability to provide compassionate care and honor human dignity.

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Related resources

Partnership encourages students of color to explore careers in health care

National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month

Reducing health disparities and racial injustice

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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