Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Dr. Ensang Cheng: Boston’s First Chinese Licensed Physician

The first Chinese doctors in the U.S. were herbalists, following an ancient tradition, and there are still Chinese herbalists today, including in Boston’s Chinatown. In the late 19th century, a handful of Chinese chose to attend American medical schools, to receive a degree as a M.D. Surprisingly, the first Chinese person to attend a U.S. medical school was a woman, Jin Yunmei, who graduated in 1885. The first male Chinese to receive a degree was Joseph Chak Thoms in 1890.

In New England, Ensang Waniella Cheng became the first male Chinese to graduate from Harvard Medical school, and was the only licensed Chinese doctor in New England for about the first half of the 20th century.

Dr. Cheng was a native born American citizen, born in Hawaii in 1877, and eventually entered the University of California. In his senior year, he moved to Boston, transferring to Harvard University, and then the Medical school, graduating in 1909.

The first mention of Dr. Cheng in a magazine or newspaper was in The Chinese Students Monthly, January 1911, which briefly noted, “The November meeting of the Harvard Chinese Club was held at the home of Dr. and Mrs. Ensang Cheng, Cambridge, where there is a piano.”

During his school years, around 1908, Dr. Cheng married Evilda C. Nielson, a white woman and socialite from California. However, the marriage only lasted for about five years, as in 1913, Evilda filed for divorce, alleging her husband choked and struck her. She asked the court for $200 a month in alimony and to retake her maiden name, Evilda C. Nielsen.

Evilda claimed that Cheng earned about $500-$1,000 a month (about $13,500 to $27,000 in today’s dollars), which was certainly a lucrative practice. In China, it was common practice to pay doctors only while you were well, but Cheng preferred the American way of paying when you were sick. Throughout the years afterward, his medical practice would remain quite lucrative.

Around March 1914, Evilda was granted a divorce on grounds of extreme cruelty, which Dr. Cheng didn't contest. The Boston Globe, March 21, 1914, quoted Dr. Cheng as stating to the court “that so far as she was concerned intermarriage of the white and yellow races was a failure.” Evilda receoived only  $100 a month in alimony.

In 1914, Dr. Cheng had his office at 7 Tyler Street in Chinatown, and he was the only licensed Chinese doctor in New England. His waiting room occupied the first floor of a small brick building, and also evolved into a gathering place for the better educated in Chinatown. To enhance this, Dr. Cheng ordered a significant number of books from China, starting a free Chinese public library, the only one outside of San Francisco. As Chinese books in the U.S. were rare, this free library was quite valuable.

The Boston Herald, April 12, 1914, also alleged that Dr. Cheng came to the U.S. 17 years ago, about 1897, after graduating from Pey-Yang University in Southern China. However, this was the only mention I found of his attendance at this university, and based on the other references, this might have been an error. The newspapers also noted that Dr. Cheng had worked in a number of Boston hospitals, thus not just treating those in Chinatown.

There was a brief mention in the Boston Globe, January 23, 1917, that during Chinese New Year, numerous Chinese gathered at Dr. Cheng's offices on Tyler Street. What this meant would be explained four years later, and this could have been an annual activity during Chinese New Year.

In the Boston Post, September 12, 1918, it was reported that Dr. Cheng, of 25 Tyler Street, was appointed an assistant to the registrars of the Selective Draft Board No.5 of 42 Court Street, so that he could help to register over 100 Chinese for the draft call. The article also mentioned that Cheng was born in Hawaii 31 years ago and came to Boston on 1906. Cheng is a native born American citizen; born in Hawaii 31 years ago; educated at Harvard and graduated from Harvard Medical School; came to Boston in 1906;

Chinese New Year once again. There was a curious article in the Boston Post, February 7, 1921, which discussed Chinese New Year and Dr. Cheng, stating, “Dr. Cheng is Chinatown’s official physician. He is paid by the year to keep them well.” So, it seems that some official Chinatown body likely paid his salary, although it wasn't identified.

The article also mentioned that many Chinese in lodging rooms didn’t have bathrooms, and that it was primarily the wealthy that had bathrooms in their residences. In what might have been an annual New Year’s tradition, numerous Chinese went to Dr. Cheng’s office to take a bath! That's probably why they were gathering at his home back in 1917 too.

Unfortunately, Dr. Cheng would have a series of legal entanglements throughout the next twenty years. The beginning was reported in the Boston Globe, February 4, 1923, where Dr. Cheng, who was still the only licensed Chinese physician in Boston, was charged with selling two packages of morphine, containing 40 grains, to a unnamed girl. Federal agents also searched his office and found another 20 grains of morphine. Dr. Cheng was ultimately fined $200 for this offense. 

In 1926, Dr. Cheng was living at 58 Oak St, Boston, and owned a summer home, for the past three years, at Shore Acres, Egypt Beach (in Scituate). He made extensive improvements to his cottage there, using Chinese mechanics, and it was considered to be an odd design. During the summers, he entertained lavishly.

However, in August 1926, Dr. Cheng was arrested, charged with performing an illegal operation, an abortion, upon Erma Warfield Sawin, a 21-year-old undergraduate of the Sargent School of Physical Education in Cambridge. She was also an instructor of athletics at Andover playground and the niece of Judge George Warfield. The girl's health was initially in serious condition at a hospital, although she recovered.

At this time, abortions were illegal although there were a number of doctors who would covertly perform the operation. Cheng denied any involvement and, initially, Sawin refused to identify the boy responsible, or the doctor. However, she later identified Cheng as her doctor and it was learned the young man responsible was a Harvard student who had fled the state and was with his parents in Indianapolis or Minneapolis.

The ultimate resolution wasn’t mentioned in the newspapers but, a later police record of Dr. Cheng made no mention of this incident. Thus, it's possible that the charges against Dr. Cheng has been dropped for some reason.

There was an intriguing, brief article in the Boston Globe, June 5, 1933, titled, “Enraged Cat Bites Three in Chinatown.” An alley cat severely bit 2 children and a man, and then was hunted by nearly a score of police for 4 hours, from 6pm-10pm, before the cat was finally cornered and shot to death in a dark cellar at 18-20 Oxford Place. Dr. Cheng treated all three of the cat's victims.

More legal woes for Dr, Cheng. In December 1934, Dr. Cheng and five other men were arrested, with Cheng being chased with receiving stolen property and being an accessory after the fact of robbery. A 700 pound safe was stolen from the home of Thomas Le Torney of the South End of Boston. The safe was taken to a barn on the estate of Dr. Cheng in Reading, where it was opened and allegedly found to contain $150 in cash and $5000 in jewelry.

Dr. Cheng claimed that he had innocently rented the barn to the other five men, and had no knowledge of the theft of the safe. Fortunately, in January 1935, Cheng was found not guilty of all charges. 

By March 1937, Dr. Cheng was remarried, to Linda Basse, the owner of a large chicken farm on West Street, Reading. In March, Linda had a cousin from Italy who had been told she might soon be deported. Linda went to a fortune-teller for advice, a "gypsy couple" with an office on Stuart Street, Boston. She alleged they assaulted her and stole $3500. The police noted Linda had facial bruises and a bit mark on her left arm. She also required stitches for a wound on her head.

The couple tied up Linda, taping her mouth shut, and left her in a locked, second-floor room. Linda was able to break a window and call for help. It was later learned the couple escaped in a taxi and an alert went out to the police stations in Boston. 

In May 1937, the couple, Rose Bimbo and her husband, James Miller, who ran a tea roman fortune-telling business on Stuart Street, were arrested in Indianapolis, Indiana. The article also noted that Dr. Cheng's wife was named Linda Vasse (different surname from the prior article). However, the Indianapolis police alleged that Rose and James didn't fit the description provided by the Boston Police. Mrs. Cheng was shown photographs of the pair and she identified them as her assailants.

At this time, the couple were identified as Rose Bimbo, age 26, and her boyfriend, Charles Pienton, age 24. They were extradited to Boston, and were to face trial at the end of May. They were convicted and Rose received a sentence of 15 years at the Sherborn Reformatory, the longest sentence ever imposed on a woman in Suffolk County, while Charles received five years in the Concord Reformatory. 

Four years later, Dr. Cheng was arrested once again, for performing another abortion, although the case this time was much more series. In October 1939, the police arrested Cheng and Henry McCue, a florist and state prison parolee, on the charges of kidnapping and illegal surgery, an abortion, on 16 year-old Catherine Theresa Dulong, who lived in Woburn. The police searched Dr. Cheng's 70 acre estate in Reading, including his 12 room house and poultry farm, in an attempt to locate the body of Catherine Dulong, as the police chief though she was dead.

Both Cheng and McCue initially denied any responsibility, with Dr. Cheng claiming the girl was brought to him with a sexually transmitted disease. Catherine's mother, Mary Dulong, alleged she had taken her daughter to see Dr. Cheng on September 3 and 19th, and that she last heard from her daughter, by telephone on September 23. The Dulongs lived at 68 Park Street, Woburn, and the family included father John Dulong, a WPA worker, and eight children.

Henry J. McCue, age 34, lived at 164 Waverly Road, Woburn, and had been working as a florist since his release frm state prison. In March 1931, McCue, with another man, was sentenced to 15-20 years for attacking two girls. However, a few months later, the girls went to court and recanted their story, getting charged with perjury. The Governor then commuted the sentence of the two men to 5-7 years. McCue was paroled 2 years later, although his record indicated he had been previously arrested 20 times for various offenses.

Catherine Dulong was described as being 5 feet, 4 inches in height, and weighing 110 pounds. She had black hair, brown eyes and “...said to be extremely attractive, appearing more as a young woman of 19 or 20 than one of 16." 

Mary Dulong said that when her daughter called her on September 23, Catherine stated she was still at Cheng home and wanted her mother to pick her up. For some reason, her mother didn't go to Cheng's that day to pick up her daughter. When Mary called Dr. Cheng on September 25, he claimed that Catherine was no longer at his game. Mary allegedly knew of her daughter’s pregnancy early in September and that a married man, possibly McCure, encouraged Catherine to get an abortion.

In November, McCue was allegedly being cooperative with the authorities and told them that he had heard from Catherine on October 18. It was possible that she was still alive and just ran away from the area. The newspapers never mentioned that she was found. 

Despite McCue’s cooperation, both men were tried in this matter and in January 1941, they were both found guilty for conspiracy to commit an illegal operation. They received a sentence of 2 years in the house of correction. Cheng also temporarily lost his license to practice medicine.

In January 1946, Dr. Cheng, now of 79 Harrison Avenue, had his physician’s license restored, and he returned to running his private medical practice. He was actually appointed by Mayor Curley to be the director of a tuberculosis program for the city health department but Dr. Cheng resigned within 24 hours of his appointment. He said the pressure of private practice made him impossible to carry out his duties in the official post. Dr. Cheng remained free of legal entanglements after this point. 

As of April 1956, there was a second licensed Chinese physician in Boston, Dr. Stanley L.F. Chin of 92 Hudson Street. 

Unfortunately, two years later, in June 1958, Cheng, at age 81, passed away due to a heart ailment. It was noted that he had been a staff physician at the Boston City Hospital for many years and also briefly taught at Harvard Medical school. In addition, he was long active in civic and charitable circles. He was survived by his wife Linda and two adopted children, William and Lana.

Cheng was a pioneer in New England, the first licensed physician, and had a successful practice for many years. He was well loved in Boston, heavily involved in supporting the community. His legal troubles didn’t appear to hurt his reputation, and he was likely one of numerous doctors who performed similar operations, albeit illegally.

My Research resources for this article included:
Biddeford Daily Journal (ME):
January 31, 1941
Boston Herald (MA): April 12, 1914; October 27, 1939
Boston Globe (MA): March 21, 1914; January 23, 1917; February 4, 1923; August 7, 1926; June 5, 1933; January 25, 1935; March 12, 1937; May 6, 1937; May 12, 1937; May 22, 1937; November 3, 1939; November 10, 1939; January 24, 1941; January 25, 1941; January 29, 1941; June 25, 1958
Boston Post (MA): September 12, 1918; February 7, 1921
Boston Traveler (MA): May 21, 1946; April 19, 1956
Chinese Students Monthly, January 1911
Elyria Chronicle Telegram (OH): August 6, 1926
Evening Gazette (MA): June 11, 1937
Evening Star (D.C.): August 6, 1926
Hammond Times (IN): August 6, 1926
Honolulu Advertiser (HI): October 29, 1939
Jefferson City Tribune (MO): August 11, 1926
Lowell Sun (MA): August 6, 1926; December 14, 1934; October 27, 1939; October 28, 1939
Medford Mail Tribune (OR): December 16, 1934
Naugatuck Daily News (CT): August 7, 1926
Patriot Ledger (MA): November 6, 1925
San Francisco Call (CA): August 31, 1913
Springfield Republican (MA): December 16, 1934

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