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Biographical entry Huang, Guo Jun (1920 - 2015)

MD New York State/West China Union 1948; Hon FRCS 1988.

2 November 1920
Guangdong, China
30 January 2015
Thoracic surgeon


Guojun Huang was among the first generation of thoracic surgeons in China and, in the 1980s, a world leader in the treatment of oesophageal cancer. He was born on 2 November 1920 in Guangdong province, China, the son of Hejian Huang, a herbal medicine trader, and his wife Huiqin Liang. Guojun was born with clubfeet, and his father bent and bound his feet every day for years to correct the deformation. At the age of six, Guojun was able to stand and walk for the first time. He recounted this experience in an interview with China Central Television in 2004, when he was 84 years old, remembering vividly the pain of his deformity and the joy of having been cured of it. This joy was one of the reasons behind his determination to become a surgeon.

Guojun Huang studied at Pui Ching High School, the most famous high school in Guangdong province, China, at the time. Besides excelling at maths, physics, biology and English, he also had a talent for the visual arts. His artwork was often selected for exhibitions. In 1939, Guojun graduated from Pui Ching with the highest honours and was awarded guaranteed admission to the prestigious pre-med programme at Yenching University, which was founded by American Christians and was one of the best universities in China.

Just six months before he was due to take the medical school entrance exam, Yenching University was forcefully closed by the Japanese occupation after Japan declared war on the United States. Guojun Huang had to move to the medical school at St John's University in Shanghai and then, in the autumn of 1943, transferred as a second-year student to the Union Medical College of West China Union University (WCUU) in Chengdu, which had a joint programme with New York State University offering MD degrees. In 1948, he received his joint MD degree from New York State University and WCUU.

Huang was offered a residency position at Garfield Hospital in Chicago, USA, but decided to remain in China, because he knew that he would be treating many more patients in China than in the USA. He chose Peking Union Hospital and found a great academic mentor, Yinkai Wu, the founder of thoracic surgery in China. After his internship, young doctor Guojun Huang joined Yinkai Wu's group, then at the leading edge of the specialty.

Guojun Huang completed over 6,000 operations over the next 41 years. Some of his patients were statesmen from China and other countries, but most were ordinary Chinese farmers, miners and other workers. For example, commissioned by Premier Enlai Zhou, Huang went to the zinc mines in Yunnan province on seven occasions, treating miners with cancer and training local medical workers.

Huang regarded each surgery as an art - he always chose the best way of cutting with minimum bleeding. The procedures he invented became the best treatment for oesophageal cancer in the world in the 1980s. He also initiated multidisciplinary rounds, consisting of surgeons, radiologists, pathologists and physicians of internal medicine, performing joint diagnosis and follow-up reviews after surgeries. This practice significantly enhanced the accuracy of doctors' diagnosis and improved the effectiveness of cancer treatment and raised survival rates.

After China opened its door to the world in 1980s, Guojun Huang lectured dozens of times in the US, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan, and received honorary fellowships from the top academic institutions in many of these countries. He was made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1988.

From 1964 to 1986, for 22 years, Huang was director of the surgical department at the Cancer Hospital at the Chinese Academy of Medical Science, the best hospital for cancer treatment and the most prestigious academic institute for cancer research in China. He led more than 50 surgeons and, as a full-time professor at the Union Medical School, Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, taught over 350 PhD and masters students, as well as hundreds of interns and junior doctors from all over China. Huang published many books and over 200 journal articles as the sole or first author.

Guojun Huang cared deeply about his patients. His son remembers one time when Guojun Huang rushed home in tears, taking his only cotton-padded jacket to give to a dying poor patient, who had dreamed of owning one all his life.

The Tiananmen Square massacre of student protesters by the Chinese Government in 1989 made Guojun Huang indignant. He retired and relocated to the United States, joining his sons there in the same year. However, he remained a consultant, working at the Cancer Hospital for several months every year until 2014, when he was in the final stages of lymphoma.

Guojun Huang had only one dream in his life: to be one of the best thoracic surgeons and to treat as many patients as possible, which he realised. In the eyes of all his colleagues and patients, Guojun Huang was a pure doctor in every sense of the word.

Guojun Huang had a very happy marriage. His wife of 64 years, Shuru Guo, was his colleague and the head nurse of the operation rooms at Peking Union Hospital and then moved with him to the Cancer Hospital at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences.

Guojun Huang died on 30 January 2015, aged 94. He was survived by his widow, Shuru Guo, their sons, Alex Huang, Li Huang and Liping Huang, and seven grandchildren.

Annie Wang
Alex Huang

The Royal College of Surgeons of England