Pearl Mao Tang, Arizona’s first licensed Asian female doctor, who started antenatal clinics in the 1950s that stemmed a high rate of infant mortality in the Phoenix area, has died. She was 99 years old.
It’s impossible to know how many Arizonans survived their first year of life thanks to Tang’s work, but his legacy is borne out by statistics.
In 1950, about 41 in 1,000 children in Phoenix would die in their first year of life, the highest number of any major city in the United States. By 1970, that number had dropped by two-thirds, a statistic the federal government cited as unique in the country.
Tang’s idea was to start antenatal clinics in areas of the Phoenix metro area that did not have easy access to medical care, areas where data showed most infant deaths were occurring. She and her nurses learned Spanish to better communicate with their patients who spoke limited English.
Tang, while working for the Maricopa County Health Department, also started programs that provided Pap tests to women for uterine cancer screening and led a campaign to demand that school children be vaccinated. .
âMany people alive today who are now between 45 and 65 are alive because of his work to reduce child mortality,â said Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association.
“She was one of the people in public health that you measure your career with. She was so tenacious.”
The measures would have lasting effects, Tang said, but, like all public health measures, they were politically difficult to sell.
âIf (politicians) are spending money, they want instant results so they can say to their constituents, ‘Look what I’ve done for you,’â Tang said in a 2013 interview with The Arizona Republic. . “But we can’t do it because it takes time to catch up and show the statistics.”
Tang said she also learned how to convert the need for public health into a dollar-and-cent argument for officials.
âWhat I have proven (is) that if you take care of the poor, it saves taxpayers money down the line,â Tang said.
An ounce of prevention: Pearl Tang, Arizona’s pioneer physician, knew that “preventing a disease costs less than curing one”
For her, however, the statistics were of patients in need of care. âSometimes when you hear about these arguments about health care,â she said, âpeople don’t realize that we are taking care of the people who really need it. Health care is really a basic need.
Dr Bob England, a longtime former director of the Maricopa County Public Health Department, has never worked with Tang, who retired from the department in 1982, but said his accomplishments were part of the tradition of the health department.
âShe was a pioneer in a different time when urgent needs were different from what they are now,â he said. âThe antenatal care, visiting the children, it just wasn’t for anyone who wasn’t insured. By all accounts, from everything I heard she was tireless, just trying to move mountains.”
Exclusion from medical examination
Tang was born in China under the name Pearl Mao. During World War II, she met an American soldier, Thomas Tang.
Mao kept in touch with Tang while she was attending medical school in Canada and he went to college in Santa Clara, California. In 1947, the two married and moved to Phoenix.
But Arizona had a law that prohibited medical school graduates from foreign countries, like Mao, from taking the licensing exam.
Pearl Tang traveled to Tucson to study microbiology at the University of Arizona, while her husband argued to the state medical board that he should reverse the policy. The board did.
Tang passed the exam, becoming the first Asian woman to be licensed to practice medicine in Arizona.
She was hired in 1954 by the Maricopa County Public Health Department to start a school vaccination program to control a diphtheria epidemic.
It was while traveling the county that she saw the gap between urban and rural areas, a gap exacerbated by income.
The following year, she began to grapple with an infant mortality rate that had remained stubbornly high, declining only slightly since the Arizona territorial era.
Tang reflected on what she learned while driving around the county and studied statistics that gave numbers to her personal observations: Deaths were occurring in rural areas where the poorest people lived.
She has set up pop-up clinics in Glendale, El Mirage, Queen Creek, Gila Bend and Buckeye. She preferred the American Legion rooms, she said, because they had a standard configuration that allowed for a large reception area and a smaller examination room. She tapped into the Ladies Auxiliary Groups for Volunteers.
The clinics operated once or twice a month. If she couldn’t find a volunteer doctor, she would see the patients herself.
âIt gives me a chance to get out of the office,â she said.
Some of his patients had little experience with the healthcare system, as evidenced by the man who showed up with a gun to prevent foreign men from examining his wife.
âHe didn’t want a man to have fun with his wife,â Tang said, âbut he had never seen a female doctor before.â
When she noticed that patients were only giving her one-word answers, she realized it was a language barrier. She and some of her nurses have signed up for evening Spanish classes to communicate better.
âWhen you talk to a mom in Spanish they lighten up and you get so much more,â she said.
In 1971, a federal study described the drop in infant mortality in Phoenix as a “drop” and described it as “the most impressive” for metropolitan areas.
Tang also got the ear of a federal official who agreed to fund another of his ideas: offering uterine cancer screenings.
“I wrote up a proposal and it went to Washington and, there you go, they wrote to me and said they would fund us,” she said.
After six years of smear, 240 cases of uterine cancer had been detected. The average woman who tested positive was a mother of four. For Tang, this meant that the screenings prevented children from becoming potential wards of the state.
Tang also championed legislation requiring all schoolchildren to be vaccinated. The sponsor of the successful bill was Sandra Day O’Connor, a state legislator who would become the first female judge on the United States Supreme Court.
Programs initiated by Tang continued, making such medical care commonplace.
Tang was predeceased by her husband, Thomas Tang, a Korean War veteran who became the first Chinese-American to be appointed to the federal bench.
The National Asian Pacific American Bar Association, in a Facebook post, recalled one of Tang’s other contributions.
âDr. Tang’s public service in establishing medical clinics and her research into infectious diseases has cemented her reputation as a mainstay in her community, but her continued presence every year at the Thomas Tang Moot Court competition has made her legendary for the family of NAPABA and assured that future generations of young lawyers will always be inspired by Judge Tang’s historical legacy. “
Pearl Tang is survived by her brother, Peter Mao; his daughter, Carol Tang; his granddaughter, Barbara Wojtyna; and three great-grandchildren.
Republic journalist Stephanie Innes contributed to this article.