Yang Chongrui: Pioneer in China's Modern Obstetrics

March 12, 2013
Editor: Zhao Liangfeng

When she was a child living through the last years of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), Yang Chongrui told her father that she wanted to go to school.

Unlike most parents of the time who did not allow their daughters to go to school, Yang's father was relatively open-minded. He registered the girl at a local primary school.

Yang and her father did not realize that this decision would set Yang on the path towards developing modern obstetrics in China, saving the lives of hundreds of mothers and babies.

Yang Chongrui revolutionized China's health system for maternal and child health. [emedicity.net]

Yang Chongrui revolutionized China's health system for maternal and child health. [emedicity.net]


Early Life

Yang was born into a farming family in Tongzhou in Beijing in 1891. Despite their farming background, her grandfather and father were well-educated. Her father passed the government official exam and became a candidate official when he was only 18 years old.

Similarly, Yang pursued her education until she was accepted into a medical program at a Beijing-based university.

In 1917, she graduated with a doctoral degree in medicine. Although she subsequently received many job offers from Beijing-based hospitals, she decided to work at a hospital in Dezhou, north China's Shandong Province.

Worried that her father would oppose her decision, she only told him about it in a letter after she had arrived there. Despite her initial trepidation, her father wrote back that he supported her decision.

Medical Practice

Not long after Yang arrived there, Dezhou was stricken by a flood. Two floors of the hospital building were flooded.

Undeterred, Yang kept working at the hospital, getting into the building via the third floor. She salvaged some medicine and paid daily home visits to sick children.

Her patience and persistence in work soon earned her a good reputation among the local residents and the respect of the president and her colleagues at the hospital.

Three years later, she accepted a job offer from a hospital in Tianjin, which offered her a chance to practice medicine as well as teach nursing at the hospital's nursing school.

Three years after that, she returned to Beijing and started working with the Peking Union Medical College Hospital (PUMCH) as the principal doctor at its obstetrics and gynecology department.

One day, Yang received a letter from a farmer in Zunhua, north China's Hebei Province, describing how many newborns in the area were dying of an unknown disease. Two of the farmer's babies and his wife had already died from the disease and he was desperate for Yang's help.

Shocked at the story, Yang organized a medical team and went to Zunhua to investigate the situation. They soon discovered that the babies had all died of tetanus, an acute and serious infection of the central nervous system. The infant death rate was 20 percent among newborns and four percent among new mothers.

In order to improve the maternal and infant mortality rate, PUMCH sent Yang to study public health at Johns Hopkins University in the United States and to learn modern childbirth assistance techniques.

In 1927, Yang graduated from the university and returned to China. Shortly after she arrived in Shanghai, she told a local journalist that she would dedicate the rest of her life to China's obstetrics field and midwifery.

Promoting Modern Midwifery

As soon as she arrived in Beijing, she organized training sessions for 360 childbirth assistants, teaching them the importance of disinfection and cleanliness when it comes to taking care of newborn babies.

She also advised the government to establish a midwifery education committee, a suggestion which was adopted in 1929 with Yang sitting on the national committee.

That year, China opened its first midwifery school and Yang was appointed as its first principal. Yang also wrote three books on gynecology and obstetrics.

In order to ensure the education quality, Yang invited professors from Yenching University (currently Peking University) and doctors from PUMCH to give lectures at the school. The high quality of education soon earned the school a reputation as one of Beijing's most established schools.

At the school, Yang repeatedly told her students, “You are responsible for the lives of the mothers and children you take care of, so you should never be careless.”

The school set an example for modern midwifery education in China. In the next few years, many places across China set up their own midwifery education institutions. By 1937, 54 public and 14 private midwifery schools had been established across the country.

Yang also obtained seven scholarships offered by the Rockefeller Foundation, enabling her students to study midwifery in England.

Establishing Maternal and Infant Health Hospitals

When the Central Health Experiment Division was established in Nanjing in 1934, Yang was appointed as the director of the Maternal and Infant Health Department.

Under her leadership, a midwifery school was established in Nanjing and maternal and infant health hospitals were set up across the country.

At the beginning of 1937, Yang was invited by the League of Nations, an international organization that existed from 1920 to 1946, to run a survey of the maternal and infant health situation in Asian and European countries.

After the war between China and Japan broke out in July that year, she returned to China and put together an emergency medical team in Hankou, south China's Hubei Province.

Later, China's Ministry of Education assigned her to Guiyang, southwest China's Guizhou Province, to establish a medical school there.

After teaching maternal and infant health courses there for a year, she returned to China's wartime capital, Chongqing, to help establish hospitals in southwest China's Sichuan Province.

Unfortunately, she caught severe typhoid fever at the end of 1939 and had to go to the United States in 1941 for treatment. While consulting doctors and seeking treatment, she continued to study obstetrics.

In 1944, she joined a UN mission to train medical staff for its Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

After World War II ended, Yang was assigned to return to Beijing to continue the maternal and infant health work. She re-established the midwifery school which was shut down during the war.

In November 1947, she went to Canada and the U.S. to study maternal and infant heath, as well issues related to family planning.

The next year, she was elected as a legislator. Later that year, she was hired by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an expert in maternal and infant health.

At the beginning of 1949, she spent some time traveling in Europe to carry out WHO medical missions.

After the People's Republic of China was founded d in October 1949, Premier Zhou Enlai wrote her a letter, asking her to return.

Delighted, Yang went back to Beijing and was invited to meet Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou. She was subsequently appointed as the director of the Bureau of Maternal and Infant Health under the Ministry of Health.

Decreasing the Maternity Death Rate

Yang's first priority after taking over the post was to decrease the maternity death rate. In 1952, she created a health care network for women and children.

Apart from that, she also established two clinics specializing in obstetrics. Based on these two clinics, a network of 13 branches and 34 sub-clinics were established across the country. Each doctor or midwife was in charge of a branch or sub-clinic, responsible for holding training sessions for midwives, assisting midwifery and promoting pre- and post-natal health examinations.

From 1949 to 1953, the network trained 269,000 childbirth assistants and 9,000 nurses in obstetrics. New and scientific delivery methods were applied nationwide, decreasing the maternity death rate from 0.7 percent in 1949 to 0.05 percent in 1954. The newborn death rate decreased from 11.7 percent in 1949 to 4.6 percent. By 1966, the newborn death rate had decreased to two percent.

In 1983, Yang passed away. She was 93 years old.

That year, the Yang Chongrui Fund was established to recognize people who have made outstanding achievements in maternal and child health in China.

In 1991, a ceremony was held to commemorate Yang's 100th birthday. At the ceremony, Chen Muhua, the late president of the All-China Women's Federation, and other senior government officials wrote articles to praise Yang's contributions to the country.

In 1999, a bronze statue of Yang was erected at the Dongcheng District Maternal and Child Health Hospital in Beijing.

(Source: bjedu.cn and shzxw.gov.cn/Translated and edited by womenofchina.cn)

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