Ying-Kai Wu (1910-2003), also known as Y. K. Wu, was born in the town of Xinmin in northeastern China. In 1933, he graduated from the Moukden Medical College, located in present-day Shenyang. Wu then trained in surgery at the prestigious Peking Union Medical College in Beijing. There, he served as chief resident in surgery in 1938 and joined their staff as an instructor in surgery the following year. Two years later, his scholastic talent, surgical skill and fluency in English earned him a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to study thoracic surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Barnes Hospital.
Wu arrived in St. Louis in 1941 to begin his fellowship. Already an accomplished surgeon in his own right, he trained for a year and a half under Evarts Graham, one of the most prominent surgeons of the 20th century. Following his thoracic surgery rotation at Barnes Hospital, Wu continued his fellowship at Koch Hospital in St. Louis to hone his skills in treating tuberculosis and to research esophageal cancer. This stint was an influential development in Wu’s career as he would later earn international recognition for his work in these areas.
Following the U.S.’s entry into World War II, Wu was eager to return to Japanese-occupied China in order to assist with the war effort. He found an opportunity in 1943 when many Japanese forces were diverted to the Philippines and other islands in the Pacific Ocean to fight American and Allied forces. Prior to Wu’s departure from St. Louis, Graham gave him 30 letters of introduction to prominent surgeons throughout the U.S. This gift allowed Wu to spend four months visiting the best American surgical clinics before returning to his home country. Upon arriving in China in October 1943, Wu became head of surgery at Central Hospital in Chongqing. Wu then returned to Peking Union Medical College in 1948 to serve as an associate professor and was promoted to chief of surgery in 1950.
Wu suffered a major setback to his academic career during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Peking Union Medical College, as well as many other Chinese universities, closed during this time when professors, academics and intellectuals were accused of elitism and systematically “re-educated” in rural labor camps. Wu performed manual labor for four years in the late 1960s before he was allowed to resume his work on esophageal cancer.
Despite this interruption, Wu remained an internationally respected surgeon. In 1979, When the political climate in China improved, Peking Union Medical College reopened and Wu was finally able to attend international conferences. He visited the U.S. more than a dozen times in the 1980s, including a return to Washington University in 1980 to serve as a visiting professor of surgery – 37 years after completing his fellowship under Evarts Graham.