The first Western-trained Chinese physician to practice in the U.S. lived most of his life in Brooklyn, where he established America’s first modern hospital for Chinese patients. A strong civil rights advocate at a time when his community could boast few of them, he spoke out frequently and forcefully against the injustices to which Chinese in America were subjected.
China-born Joseph Chak Thoms (1862-1929), known in his native Cantonese dialect as Tom Ah Jo, arrived in California as a teenager in the mid-1870s. He had a gift for language and soon mastered English with hardly an accent. After being baptized by a Presbyterian missionary – which earned him a beating from his uncle – he took a job as a cabin boy and sailed around the world on a steamer, visiting Japan and India before returning to America.
By the early 1880s, he had made New York his permanent home and Anglicized his name, though like all Chinese he was precluded from naturalizing. The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by Congress in 1882, had not only halted immigration of most Chinese into the country; it had also prohibited Chinese from becoming American citizens.
Thoms found work as a court interpreter, serving at trials at which Chinese were accused or called to testify. But after he joined an effort of social reformers to shut down Chinatown gambling halls, he found himself in the defendant’s chair. His activism earned him the enmity of one of the tongs, societies of Chinese toughs that profiteered from the illegal games. When he refused a bribe to keep his mouth shut, he was sued on trumped-up charges and for a brief period a price was put on his head.
At Brooklyn’s Washington Avenue Baptist Church, the young man met Dr. Nelson Sizer, a Long Island College Hospital professor. He was virtually adopted by Sizer and his wife and lived with the couple for several years. He also studied with the doctor and eventually enrolled in the College’s medical school – today’s SUNY Downstate Medical Center. Thoms became its first Chinese graduate – and, as far as is known, the first ethnic Chinese to graduate from any American medical school – in March, 1890. Three months later, he wed Ethel Wright, a Sunday School teacher of English descent, and over the next decade the couple had three children.
The First Chinese Hospital
New York’s Chinatown was not without doctors; a dozen herbalists treated a variety of ailments with traditional remedies. But Thoms took a dim view of their training and their cures. “The system of medicine pursued in the Western hemisphere is far superior to that which prevails in China,” he declared in 1889.
Shortly after his graduation, several area churches began a drive to establish a Chinese hospital. The need was clear: many Chinese avoided American clinics because of language difficulties and suspicion of Western medicine. Some feared American doctors might harvest their organs for the manufacture of drugs.
The eight-bed Chinese Hospital opened in 1891 with Thoms as its head. It occupied a row house at 45 Hicks Street, a four-story brick dwelling in Brooklyn Heights that still stands. It was the first clinic in the nation founded for the treatment of Chinese patients with Western methods. White philanthropists put up $600 for rent and start-up expenses; Chinatown merchants raised the rest and pledged to pay running costs. The staff was all Chinese, and so was the food. Treatment was free to those who couldn’t pay; a nominal sum was charged others.
Legal obstacles initially prevented Thoms from treating patients, however. Like many states, New York required citizenship as a condition for granting professional licenses, but the Exclusion Act precluded naturalization of Chinese. A loophole was exploited to allow him to practice, but only on Chinese patients. The hospital was not a success, however, and the following year it closed its doors and Thoms went into private practice.
Speaking Out for America’s Chinese
The shuttering of his infirmary permitted Thoms time for social activism. He never shied away from speaking out on the issues of his day, whether standing up for Chinese in his adopted country or advocating political reform in his native land. In 1891, the Rev. Valentine A. Lewis, a Brooklyn-based Presbyterian minister, asserted in a mean-spirited, racist rant that Chinese men attending Christian Sunday schools did so for the company of young white female teachers rather than out of any serious interest in the Gospel, and warned the young women’s parents against such licentious men, whom he accused of frequenting “vile resorts” in Chinatown during the week. In a sharply worded letter to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Thoms challenged Lewis to defend his views at a public meeting.
Lewis didn’t show up, but more than 100 people did, and Thoms defended his countrymen in flawless and eloquent English. Quoting Shakespeare, he offered a spirited, extemporaneous denunciation of Lewis: “It is true that Chinamen have passions and love like other men. If you prick us, do we not bleed? When you poison us, do we not die? And when you wrong us shall we not demand justice?… Mr. Lewis has denounced this teaching by ladies, but the ladies are doing noble work. I think I have the right to call him a coward and a contemptible slanderer.”
The Chinese Exclusion Act was valid for only 10 years, and so in 1892, Congress was obliged to reauthorize it, amend it or allow it to lapse. The unfortunate result was the Geary Act, which not only extended it for another decade, but also required Chinese to register and be photographed under penalty of imprisonment and deportation. Most Chinese resolved not only to disobey it, but to see it repealed or declared unconstitutional.
Together with Wong Chin Foo, a Chinese journalist, Thoms organized the Chinese Equal Rights League to oppose the law. He was named its president and wasted no time sounding off against the Geary Act. At a mass meeting at Cooper Union on September 1, 1892, he declared, “We have been treated with inhumanity which is not equaled by the treatment of Jews in Russia. That Chinamen living in peace in the community and respecting the laws of the land should be compelled to be registered like dogs and be subjected to severe penalties without the rights of habeas corpus is undemocratic and un-American. We will submit to the laws of your land, but to the yoke of tyranny – never!”
The law was not rescinded, however. America’s disenfranchised Chinese had little leverage over Congress, and the Supreme Court ultimately declared the Geary Act constitutional. In 1902, Congress passed the Scott Act, which extended Chinese exclusion indefinitely. Congress did not repeal it until 1943, after China became a U.S. ally in World War II.
Envisioning China’s Future
By the early 20th century, it was clear the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty’s days were numbered, and there were two principal, competing visions for a post-dynastic, modern China. One, personified by exiled Chinese intellectual Kang Youwei, imagined a peaceful transition to constitutional monarchy. But Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the other faction, aimed to overthrow the Manchus and establish a republic. Thoms’ sympathies were with the first group; he became secretary of the New York branch of Kang’s Chinese Empire Reform Association upon its formal establishment in 1902. But he also kept lines of communication open with Dr. Sun, a friend and fellow physician whom he hosted in Brooklyn for several weeks in 1904, and whose movement ultimately prevailed.
Thoms addressed China’s future with the same passion he displayed when he advocated equal rights for Chinese in America. In 21st century hindsight, he was remarkably prescient in some of his predictions:
“The time is near at hand when we shall be recognized as one of the powers of the earth. When the Chinese people are once awake; when they begin to grasp the meaning of things, they will act quickly . . . The Chinese will be quick to make use of the great inventions. They will be quick to invent things themselves. They will be quick to adopt the new business methods, and by their economy and their thrift they will outclass their competitors in other countries.
Don’t you suppose that when China begins to build great steel plants that she will turn out the products in this line cheaper and better than you do in America or they do in England? Don’t you suppose that when China gets to turning out textile fabrics she can produce them at less cost than any other nation on earth? So it will be in all products of the loom, in all products of modern machinery, and in the inventions and in trade.”
Jubilant at the 1911 overthrow of the Manchu overlords who had ruled since 1644, Thoms was quoted in the press often concerning developments in China. He subsequently spoke out when Japan occupied vast tracts of his native land during the First World War. Newspapers knew they could count on him for cogent and considered analysis of the rapid developments in Asia.
Dr. Thoms perished in the line of duty. He was lured to the bedside of an ex-convict who bore him a personal grudge. The man, who was dying of tuberculosis, threw boiling water into the doctor’s face and then fired five shots into his body. Joseph Chak Thoms died of his wounds on May 16, 1929 and was buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens. Unlike many Chinese immigrants of his era, whose bones were eventually shipped back to their native villages in China, Thoms’ remains rest in Brooklyn to this day.
Illustrations, from above: Dr. Joseph C. Thoms in 1911 (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, November 26, 1911); 45 Hicks Street, Brooklyn, site of America’s first Chinese hospital, as it looks today (photo by the author); and the first page of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
George Koo says
This is great stuff. You are filling a void on the history of Chinese in America. Important heritage of which most of us have no inkling. Also nice to know we had outspoken leaders even in the earliest days that belie the image of docile “model minority.”
I look forward to reading more from you. Thank you.
s.c. andrew chen says
hello mr seligman
a friend of mine, nicky yu, forwarded your article on dr thoms. an amazing man and thank you for bringing him to light. i am also sorry that i missed you when you were in the bay area at the eastwind bookshop a few years ago. hope to read more of your material and to meet you in person, should the opportunity arise again.
umbria, italy[3 mons of the year]
san francisco[6mons of the year]
Scott D. Seligman says
Andrew…it would be my pleasure!
VK Wong says
Thank you very much for bringing Tom Ah Jo to light. It is extremely important to all Americans that we know and appreciate the lives of those who fought against the gross injustices embedded in our national society. Apart from your excellent article, I don’t know much about Tom Ah Jo and would like to know more. Would it be possible for you to publish the various sources, beyond those already cited, of materials regarding Tom Ah Jo?
Scott D. Seligman says
I’d be glad to send you some sources on Dr. Thoms. Please write me c/o my website, http://www.seligmanonline.com