1921: Birds Nests & The First Chinese Woman PhD in Chicago

Many Chinese women who got a college degree in the US before World War II went back to China to seek a career.  There were few jobs in this country for educated Chinese of either sex, and in those days even educated white women could rarely find work as more than secretaries.  Wang Chi Che (or Wang Chi Lian: 王季莲) was an exception, however.  She graduated from Wellesley in 1914, a schoolmate of Mdm. Chiang Kai-shek. A scientist in chemistry and nutrition, she headed the blood department of the Michael Reese Hospital and was the chair of the Chemistry Department at Nelson-Morris Institution between 1920 and 1930.  She eventually became a professor at Northwestern University. She co-founded the Chicago’s Chinese Women’s Club in 1915(?).  The club apparently remained active until the late 1960s.  She was a charter member of the American Institution of Nutrition.  She died in 1979, at the age of 84.  In 2004, years after her death, she even had a Chicago city park named after her (1).

Wang Chi Che came to the US as a young girl in about 1907 to attend Walnut Hill, a girl’s prep school in the outskirts of Boston  She seems to have had an outgoing personality.  Even though she had a Chinese fellow student, one Ping Hsia Hu 胡彬夏, to keep her company, she made friends with several white girls.  She may have visited the home of one, Katherine Perry, in Reedsburgh, Wisconsin.  She studied for her BA at Wellesley, but she was definitely in the Midwest by the late 1910s, for she received her PhD in chemistry from the University of Chicago in 1921.
In 1921 she took two chapters from her PhD dissertation and published them as research papers in the Journal of Biological Chemistry: “The Isolation and Nature of the Amino Sugar of Chinese Birds’ Nests” (49 (2): 441) and “The Composition of Chinese Edible Birds’ Nests and the Nature of Their Proteins (49 (2): 429).  She wrote that she had gotten the birds’ nests from the Hoo Loong Edible Birds’ Nest Store in Chicago, “which imported them directly from China.”

(1) Chicago Sun-Times, 11 Mar 2004.  The park — a very small one — is at 1762 W. Diversey Boulevard.