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Obituary: Ching Chun Li / Pioneer in human genetics who escaped China

Friday, October 24, 2003

By Anita Srikameswaran, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A human genetics pioneer who escaped Maoist China and continued his stellar career in Pittsburgh died Monday at his Mt. Lebanon home.

Ching Chun "C.C." Li, of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, was a week shy of his 91st birthday.

He was a founder of population genetics, the study of how genes behave in populations. According to Robert Ferrell, chairman of the school's human genetics department, Dr. Li wrote textbooks, including 1975's First Course in Population Genetics, that are considered classics in the field.

"They inspired students all over the world," said Ferrell, who read them himself to learn statistical genetics from a master.

Dr. Li formally retired from the university in the early 1980s but still went to his office every day and worked.

"He was still considered one of the clearest thinkers that any of us knew," Ferrell said. "He had an amazing ability to simplify complex concepts and make them accessible."

A lecture Dr. Li called "A Tale of Two Thermos Bottles" noted that while Americans tend to use the flasks to keep beverages cool, the Chinese use them mainly to keep them warm. Although they seemed to serve different, even contradictory, functions, they both kept liquids at a consistent temperature. One theory explained the whole.

If he hadn't been a geneticist, Dr. Li could have been a stand-up comedian with his impeccable sense of timing and gift for storytelling, Ferrell said.

Dr. Li was born in Tianjin (Tientsin), China, about 80 miles southeast of Beijing, and learned English while attending a British missionary school. In 1936, he received his bachelor's degree in agronomy from the University of Nanking.

"I got hooked on genetics and that laid the foundation for future trouble," Dr. Li once said.

For a year after graduation, the "city boy," as he described himself, worked with farmers in Beijing and learned the basics of plant breeding and field work by developing strains of sorghum, a grain that was widely used for building materials and livestock feed.

His interests took him to Cornell University's College of Agriculture, where in 1940 he completed his doctorate in plant breeding and genetics. He studied statistics and mathematics at the University of Chicago, Columbia University and North Carolina State College.

In October 1941, Dr. Li and his bride, Clara Lem, boarded an ocean liner in San Diego for what was to be a two-week trip to Shanghai. He would later say that the 51-day trip was the most surprising of his life. Reports of submarine activity rerouted the ship first to Australia and then to Java before it docked in Hong Kong. There the couple boarded another ship for Shanghai.

Dr. Li strolled the deck one morning and saw that the coastline was not on the left, or port, side as it should have been. They had turned back for Hong Kong because the Japanese were in Shanghai. The couple disembarked and were transported to the Kowloon Peninsula, opposite Hong Kong. They were stranded with no money and worthless traveler's checks because the Japanese quickly seized the area.

Although they found shelter through a relative, the couple soon had nothing to eat.

As Dr. Li later put it, starvation is an unforgettable experience: "You cannot think of anything but food. Everything else is trivial and boring. Even death is trivial."

With some lucky friendships, they contacted a Chinese underground organization that helped them escape to unoccupied China. It took 38 days to reach safety. Dr. Li walked and his pregnant wife was carried in a hired sedan chair.

In 1943, shortly before Dr. Li took a job at the University of Nanking, his 14-month-old son, Jeff, died of dysentery in his arms. Three years later, he joined the faculty of National Peking University, where he would later, at age 34, become its youngest department head and write his first book, "Population Genetics."

The Communist government that took over in 1949 also brought Russian-influenced genetics to the country. Dr. Li's training was at odds with the so-called "new genetics" and he knew it was only a matter of time before he would be denounced as disloyal. He was persecuted, as he put it, because of his commitment to scientific principles of heredity.

Dr. Li didn't tell his wife until the last minute of his plans for their escape from China. He scheduled a vacation to visit his sick mother in Shanghai and they left their house intact as if they intended to return.

"I didn't get caught," Dr. Li said. "I was always two steps ahead."

Soon after, in 1950, the couple and their young daughter made it to British territory.

Dr. Li's American colleagues recommended the highly respected geneticist to Dr. Thomas Parran, a former U.S. surgeon general and the first dean of the Pitt public health school. Dr. Li joined the faculty in 1951. From 1969 to 1975, he headed the school's biostatistics department.

He told his daughter that he played a key role in picking the bricks used in the school's construction. True to scientific experimentation, Dr. Li had the contractors build miniwalls of the brick choices in certain locations. After a period of time, the ones that weathered the best were chosen.

Dr. Li is survived by his wife, a daughter, Carol, of State College and Washington, D.C., a son, Steven, of Seattle, and two grandchildren.

Anita Srikameswaran can be reached at or 412-263-3858.

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