Shiu-ying Hu, PhD: 1908–2012
by Steven Foster
On May 31st, 2012, the Chinese University of Hong Kong posted an obituary of Prof. Hu Shiu-ying, PhD (Shiu-ying Hu), announcing the passing of the eminent economic botanist and taxonomist. She died at the age of 104 on May 22, 2012, at the Prince of Wales Hospital, Hong Kong. Her obituary appears on a website dedicated to the memory of her remarkable life and work.1
Dr. Hu, Emeritus Senior Research Fellow of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University, spent most of the last 20 years in Hong Kong, where she served as Honorary Professor of Chinese Medicine, Honorary Senior Research Fellow of the School of Life Sciences, and Senior College Tutor of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In a career stretching nearly 8 decades, Dr. Hu was active past her 100th year. Dr. Hu became the leading expert and monographer of the genera Philadelphus or mock orange (Hydrangeaceae), Hemerocallis or daylily (Liliaceae), Paulownia or princess-tree (Paulowniaceae), the mallow family (Malvaceae), and Ilex or hollies (Aquifoliaceae). Considered a leading world expert on hollies (Aquifoliaceae), the American Holly Society created an award in her name in 1992, for which Dr. Hu was the first recipient. She was affectionately nicknamed “Holly Hu.” In addition, Dr. Hu made significant contributions to the taxonomy of major plant families including the orchid family (Orchidaceae), mallow family (Malvaceae) and aster family (Asteraceae), among others. It is rare to read a paper on Ephedra (Ephedraceae), Eucommia (Eucommiaceae), Leonurus (motherwort, Lamiaceae), Panax (ginseng, Araliaceae), and other medicinal plant groups that does not contain citation to Dr. Hu’s various papers on those plants. In 2008, Dr. Hu was also the first, and so far only, recipient of the American Botanical Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award. 2,3
Dr. Hu was born in 1908, during the Qing Dynasty in a small village on the southern bank of the ancient course of the Yellow River. In her magnum opus, Food Plants of China, she describes the farmland as poor in condition, reclaimed from a swamp. In summer months, floods and storms destroyed all crops and predictable famines ensued. In her youth, it was there that Dr. Hu gained firsthand knowledge of famine foods and medicinal plants.
She was raised in a communal homestead shared by descendants of her paternal grandparents. At times, the family survived by foraging for wild foods. Her mother gave birth to three daughters and two sons. Shiu-ying Hu and one brother were the only two who survived in a rural region of China with an infant mortality rate of 50%. Soon after her birth, Shiu Ying Hu fell ill, and her mother sent her father to a nearby village to obtain an herbal medicine to save the young girl’s life. Like most peasants in China, he had no shoes. He tied reeds to his feet to make the journey, and trudged through snow to get the herbal prescription that saved Dr. Hu’s life. When she began her botanical studies in the 1930s, Dr. Hu asked herself the question, “What is the herb that saved my life?” That question remained unanswered, but inspired Dr. Hu to apply herself to the study of plants to improve the well-being of rural people in China.
A stroke of good fortune provided a scholarship which allowed her to attend Mary Stevens Girl’s High School, a boarding school in Xuzhou run by Presbyterian missionaries. After graduation, she attended Ginling College, a small liberal arts and sciences college in Nanjing. There, for the first time in her life, she enjoyed a bowl of rice. Although interested in agriculture courses, which were not offered, she studied biology and sociology in hopes that it would offer her the opportunity to pursue her cardinal interest — helping to serve the people in rural China.
After finishing her undergraduate degree at Ginling College in 1933, she began work toward a Master’s degree in botany at Lingnan University in Guangzhou. Among her teachers was Prof. F. A. McClure, a leading 20th-century botanical expert on bamboos. In pursuit of food and medicinal plants of rural peoples, she prepared her thesis, “The Chinese Esculent Plants Used for the Conservation of Health.” She gathered data from herb collectors, shopkeepers, Guangzhou homemakers, Taoist monks and nuns residing in Luofu Shan, as well as drawing on her own personal experience.
Soon after finishing her Master’s degree in June 1937, the Sino-Japanese War broke out and Dr. Hu became a refugee. In January of 1938 she arrived in Chengdu, Sichuan, having accepted a teaching position at West China Union University, where she remained for eight years. Her monthly salary was three bushels of rice. During this period she collected plants in the Emei Mountains (Mt. Omei) famous for medicinal plants, and lived two summers with Sino-Tibetan ethnic groups including the Qiang and Jiarong. The Jiarong live in the territory of the giant panda.4 Today colleagues find it remarkable that she collected plants in this remote and rugged region of China, which even now can be reached only by off-road vehicles or on horseback. She traveled on foot, sometimes alone in the wilderness for months at a time. During her long life, she collected over 180,000 herbarium specimens.5
In March 1946, Dr. Hu received a telegram from Radcliffe College inviting her to apply for a graduate fellowship for a doctoral program at Harvard University under Professor Elmer D. Merrill, a leading American expert on Eastern Asiatic botany who in the early 1940s had returned to the United States from the Philippines following the Japanese invasion. She received the fellowship, despite being told that Harvard “didn’t take girls.” Two American friends helped provide money for her travel to Boston. Dr. Hu arrived in the United States on August 2, 1946, with a small suitcase of clothes and two large suitcases of plant specimens. In Food Plants of China (2005), she wrote, “The change of lifestyles from China to America was to me like a complete metamorphosis is to insects. Everything was new.”
Dr. Hu was the last student of Professor Merrill, and was a student in the final class of Harvard University’s Gray Herbarium Director, Merritt Lyndon Fernald. In 1949, Dr. Hu received her doctorate, becoming the first Chinese-born woman to receive a PhD in botany from Harvard University. That was also the year that Mao Zedong’s victory over the Kuomintang in China’s Civil War resulted in the creation of the People’s Republic of China. Subsequently, China became closed to the West.
Upon graduation, Dr. Hu dreamed of working for the United States Department of Agriculture. However, she could not obtain a job there. Only Harvard University offered her a position. Later, she was to discover that the Harvard position was actually more prestigious. For the next 3 decades, Dr. Hu worked tirelessly on the taxonomy, phytogeography, and economic plants of China based on collections at the Arnold Arboretum, the Harvard University Herbaria, the New York Botanical Garden, and the US National Herbarium, among other collections. One result of the work is the Hu Card Index, a compilation of 158,844 index cards for Chinese plant names produced by Dr. Hu and her staff, representing the botanical literature on Chinese plants from 1753-1955.6
Five-time Academy Award winner, composer, conductor, and pianist John Williams has been accused of being a tree hugger. Best known for his movie scores, his foray into serious classical composition includes his three “tree songs,” one inspired by a magnificent specimen of Metasequoia or dawn redwood (Taxodiaceae) at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum to which Dr. Hu provided William’s a personal introduction. A redwood-relative known only from the fossil record until the 1940s, Williams’ treesong, “Dr. Hu and the Metasequoia,” honors the tree and the Chinese graduate student who planted it in 1949 — Dr. Shiu Ying Hu. Dr. Hu’s service to others and heart-felt enthusiasm inspires.
Explaining his inspiration in an interview with RTHK TV’s “Success Stories,” biographical documentary on Dr. Hu, Williams said, “The tree seems to be almost intelligent…If you look at it long enough it seems to be speaking to you with the wisdom of age and great intelligence…I just love this tree and I love this woman and I thought it might be a nice idea for a musical piece. Dr. Hu is a brilliant scientist, a very attractive woman with a sort of spiritual connection with plants…She knows the plants and they are like children to her. This woman has a spiritual aura about her which is very still and penetrates very deep into her subject almost like a religious person for me.”7
Although working in the pinnacle of botanical academia, Dr. Hu never forgot her Chinese peasant roots. She served as a liaison between the Western world and China during the first two decades of Communist China’s closure to the West. At her own expense, she provided botanical literature and paid membership fees to international scientific societies for Chinese colleagues and students. Through the years, her frugal lifestyle enabled her to provide scholarships, living quarters, and money for dozens of Chinese students to study in America and elsewhere. Her home was Brookline, Massachusetts, but as she was fond of reminding colleagues, her heart always belonged to China.
From September 1968 to June 1969, she served as a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biology at Chung Chi College, Chinese University of Hong Kong, while continuing her work on the flora of Hong Kong. Once China opened up to the West in the mid-1970s, Dr. Hu made numerous return trips to China, greeted with the deepest respect from China’s scientific community, like a revered sage.
Dr. Hu dedicated her life to improving the life of the Chinese people through her love of plants. China, in turn, honored Dr. Hu’s service. Dr. Hu was appointed Advisor to the Sun Yat-sen Botanical Garden in Nanjing, Honorary Professor of South China Agriculture University in Guangzhou, and Advisor to the Fairy Lake Botanical Garden in Shenzhen. She was instrumental in the establishment of the School of Chinese Medicine at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She also created a new environmental awareness in Hong Kong by insisting that large trees be incorporated into the campus design, rather than cut down. In 2001, she was awarded the Bronze Bauhinia Star by the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Her many decades of tireless dedication produced fruits mirroring the towering heights of the Metasequoia tree. Dr. Hu authored more than 160 scientific papers. She is the author of numerous books, notably her magnum opus, Food Plants of China (The Chinese University Press, 2005), as well as An Enumeration of Chinese Materia Medica (The Chinese University Press, 1980; 2nd ed. 1999) and The Genera of Orchidaceae in Hong Kong (The Chinese University Press, 1977), among others.
In recognition of Professor Hu’s international contribution to botanical science, the School of Life Sciences of The Chinese University of Hong Kong has established an endowment to expand and relocate the University’s Herbarium in the School of Life Sciences, now renamed the Shiu-Ying Hu Herbarium. Information is available at the Shiu-Ying Hu website, set up to honor her memory and accomplishments and includes her obituary, biography, tributes, photos, and many external links.1
Dr. Shiu-ying Hu’s remarkable academic eminence was borne of her consistent, unassuming humility and impressive dedication to work. She studied with some of the most noted botanists of the 20th century, yet her affable personality and simple demeanor erased awareness of all lines of social class structure. Although she counted heads of government and famous composers among those who sought her acquaintance, her ability to listen to anyone earned her friends in teachers and in students — and lifelong friends among all people, from ethnic minorities of Sichuan and Tibet to the herdsmen of Inner Mongolia, the herb collectors of Yunnan, monks and nuns of famous Taoist and Buddhist temples, shopkeepers of Guangzhou, and three generations of botanists from around the world. In China she was known as “Grandmother Plants.” —Steven Foster
1. The Chinese University of Hong Kong website. Obituary. In Memory of Professor Shiu Ying Hu. May 31, 2012. Available at:www.cuhk.edu.hk/cpr/hushiuying/obituary.htm. Accessed November 5, 2021.
2. Anon. Remembering Professor Shiu-Ying Hu. Harvard Gazette. May 31, 2012. Available at: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/newsplus/remembering-professor-shiu-ying-hu/. Accessed November 5, 2021.
3. Anon. Remembering Professor Shiu-Ying Hu. The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University website. May 30, 2012.
4. Hu SY. Food plants of China. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press; 2005., p.14-18.
5. Cheung S., Executive Producer. Success Stories: Dr. Hu Shiu-Ying [DVD Video]. Honk Kong: RTHK TV Programme Series. Intercontinental Video Limited. 2005, 46 min.
6. The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Flora of China Project records, 1953-1977.
7. Williams, J. Interview in: Cheung S., Executive Producer. Success Stories: Dr. Hu Shiu-Ying [DVD Video]. Honk Kong: RTHK TV Programme Series. Intercontinental Video Limited. 2005, 46 min.