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Behind the historic gift: Gerald Chan’s remarks to UMass Chan Medical School community

On behalf of The Morningside Foundation, Gerald Chan addresses the Sept. 7 campus celebration

UMass Chan Medical School Communications

September 09, 2021

Editor’s note: The following are the remarks made by Gerald Chan, on behalf of The Morningside Foundation, on Tuesday, Sept. 7, at UMass Chan Medical School in Worcester, during the campus celebration recognizing the $175 million gift from The Morningside Foundation.  

It gives me great pleasure in representing The Morningside Foundation to join in the celebration today. Terrible restrictions from the pandemic have prevented my family members from being here and leaving me as the sole representative of the family.

What I’d like to do is offer a few remarks to give some color to this gift. By renaming the school as UMass Chan Medical School, this institution is now inextricably linked to the Chan family.  I want this linkage to be meaningful to you beyond a transaction by which The Morningside Foundation provided some financial support to the school. Too much of modern life has become merely transactional. Scarce are the reflections in search of meaning.

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Gerald Chan speaking at the campus celebration on Sept. 7, 2021

The persons this naming are to honor are Mr. and Mrs. T.H. Chan, the parents of my brothers and me.  My father passed away 35 years ago at an age younger than mine now. He was diagnosed with transitional cell carcinoma of the bladder, had a botched surgery done by an over confident surgeon, and died within nine months from initial diagnosis. My mother, on the other hand, is 101 and still going. She keeps an active social calendar, eats out with friends and family regularly and enjoys her food, especially dessert, which is a must-have as the conclusion to a proper meal. I’m fortunate that she passed on to me her mitochondria genome. It would be wonderful if the mitochondria in my cells can keep making ATP for as long as hers.

There are many things that I can say about my parents, but I feel that mere facts and chronology are of limited import. In as much as we all hated the study of history that was a mere recitation of dates and events, I would not want to tell you about my parents in such a format. History should be living, imagined and reimagined so as to be impactful on the present. The past gives us roots, not so much in the sense of connecting us to bygone times, but in anchoring us in values that are timeless. The life of my father gave form to the values he passed on to me. His life inspires me to live similarly; and his life ennobles mine.

The gift to UMass today has its roots in the life of giving that my parents lived. I will give you one vignette of my late father. When the elevator repair man who had worked for him for some years fell ill and needed a blood transfusion, my father gave that man his own blood. In those days in Hong Kong, blood banks were as yet underdeveloped. There would be a band of people standing outside the back door of the hospital waiting to sell blood. My father, who was by then a well-to-do man, could have paid anyone of those men for their blood. Instead, he gave the elevator man his own blood. In that one act of giving which cuts through layers of socioeconomic strata, he affirmed the common humanity he had with the repair man. His giving taught me that financial giving is but a surrogate that affirms a common humanity. I would like that this gift not be a mere conveyance of financial resources, but a continuation of the humanity that my father lived by.

Since this gift is to a medical school, I will provide a further sketch of my father by sharing a bit of his medical history. From my aunts, I learned that my father was a rambunctious boy in his childhood. He had a good mind and was especially good with numbers, but he was not a good student. It would be years later when my son was diagnosed with ADHD, and my younger brother pointing out to me that I had all the hallmarks of ADHD, that I realized my father in all likelihood suffered from ADHD. But in those old days, a kid with ADHD was simply a bad kid. Under the prevailing Chinese culture, any deviation from social norms was judged as errant, and therefore bad. My dad was therefore thought to be not a good kid in school. He never went to university. I don’t even know if he finished high school. He never talked about his childhood, and I never thought to ask. By the time I wanted to know more, he was no longer around.

My father overcame his genetic predisposition by hard work and perseverance, by being entrepreneurial and by taking risk to seize opportunities. He came of age in a tumultuous period of world history, buffeted by perilous developments in world affairs and beset by his own doubts about his ability to succeed in life. I was too young to know his trials when I was growing up. Decades later, I read some of his letters to my aunt that gave me a glimpse into his struggles. One thing I do know is how determined he was to succeed. Eventually, he did succeed as a businessman. He did so with sheer grit, all along never compromising his exacting integrity nor losing the warmth of his humanity.

Now before I am found guilty of indulging in filial hagiography about my father, let me turn now to say a few words about my mother. When she graduated from secondary school, she could have gone on to study medicine. Instead, she chose to study nursing. In her own words, “Who would care for those sick patients?” It was therefore with compassion and a spirit of service to others that she chose a career in nursing. She was trained in a British hospital in Northern China and worked as a registered nurse during my childhood. She worked in the Chest Clinic in Hong Kong at a time when tuberculosis was rampant. She also worked as a surgical nurse where her skills were highly regarded. It is therefore most fitting that a school of nursing should bear her name.

The COVID pandemic today has shown us in startling clarity how critical nurses are at the front line of health care delivery. The traditional role of nurses only providing supportive care has given way to a model where nurses and nurse practitioners bear a large load in the health care system. This is all the more so as the prevalent disease burden in the world shifts from acute to chronic diseases. It is my hope that the nursing school, hereafter the Tan Chingfen Graduate School of Nursing, would grow in scale and train many more who will play a leadership role in the future of health care.

As to Morningside, the name that will hereafter be attached to the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, it is the name used by the investment arm of the Chan family for many years. Many of its investments in recent years have been in biotechnology, which is at the convergence of science, medicine and business. For centuries, medicine progressed by observations. This was true even as late as the time of William Osler who is widely regarded as the seminal figure in modern medicine. Today, medicine has evolved to be firmly grounded in science. In other words, science is now the engine for progress in medicine.

Biotechnology, in turn, is the business of turning science into medicine. That journey from a laboratory discovery to an approved therapeutic, from bench to bedside, is tightly regulated and highly risky, but without a commitment to discovery science and skillful execution of translational science, the progress of medicine will stall. Biomedical science today is an expensive enterprise. It is the price tag for progress. If the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences is to continue its track record of doing top-notch science, as evidenced by a homegrown Nobel laureate, a Breakthrough Prize and much of the foundational work that underpinned the first gene therapy approved by the FDA, it must have the resources to recruit and support the most talented scientists. The competition in the world today is a competition for power. Some call this competition an arms race. If that were the case, we simply need more arms to win the race.

It is sapient of the founders of the UMass Medical School that it should consist of a school of science, a medical school and a school of nursing. The three schools exist separately, but also cross-fertilize each other. This is a comprehensive training ground that develops talents for the health care of today and the health care of tomorrow. I wish that this gift will serve as the spotlight on the UMass Chan Medical School. The world needs to look beyond Route 128 to see what a great educational and research institution has been built on the shores of Lake Quinsigamond. When I finally did so after many Boston-bound years, I was stunned. I promptly found outstanding intellectual properties with which Morningside started two biotech companies.

Any school will ultimately be defined by its graduates. The kinds of graduates a school turns out has a lot to do with the kinds of people it takes in. In getting to know the School of Medicine hereafter the T.H. Chan School of Medicine, I was particularly impressed by its admission practice, which attends to both quality and inclusion. Chancellor Collins has told me innumerable stories of UMass Medical students here who came from unsure beginnings and rose to become distinguished leaders in medicine. My father would be very pleased to have the family name associated with a school that opens doors for those from humble backgrounds to the study of medicine.

In choosing to support UMass Medical School, The Morningside Foundation also wants to recognize the importance of public-private education. Blessed with many outstanding private universities, it is all too easy for us in Massachusetts to lose sight that it is the state universities that bear the bulk of the burden of educating the young people of this country. The prominence of our private universities should not obfuscate the importance of the public universities. These two play very overlapping, but also complementary roles in preparing the talents needed for a healthy, functioning and culturally rich society.

The Morrill Act of 1862, an act of Congress which created the land-grant universities, of which UMass is one of two in this state, laid the foundation for the rise of the United States to be a world power. Similarly, the GI Bill contributed immeasurably to the post-World War II prosperity this country enjoyed. Both attest to the enormous returns to society from the public sector investing in public higher education.

One group for whom public higher education is especially important is the new immigrants. The census data published two weeks ago showed that immigrants are the fastest growing demographic in Massachusetts. My parents were also transplanted immigrants in their younger days. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts began with the Pilgrims coming as immigrants. As then and now, the immigrant story is a story of people taking risk in order to create a better life for their families. It is not surprising that people who dared to be uprooted from their homeland eventually become a source of new energy for their adopted country. Whether the new immigrants are themselves educated or not, they want their children to be educated. I dare say this is the one universal aspiration of immigrants and a strong reason why upward social mobility is still evident among immigrant groups in this country today. Quality public education is the best way to harness the energy brought to our country by new immigrants. I therefore call on the leaders of the commonwealth to redouble the state’s support for all the campuses of the University of Massachusetts. The gift that we are celebrating today is not meant to replace state support, but to augment it in order that UMass Medical School can reach even greater heights. 

It will soon be half a century since I first moved to Massachusetts. It was here that I found life-changing education and insanely abundant opportunities to flourish in my work. It is with gratitude to the people of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, with loving thoughts for my parents, and with tribute to you all, who are working every day to make UMass Chan Medical School a very special place, I am here today to celebrate this gift with you. I consider it an honor that my family’s name will be associated with this distinguished public institution of learning, research and patient care.

Thank you very much.