The good doctor

By Pei Pei (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-04-05 08:41
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The good doctor
Qian Xinzhong, former health minister, continued practicing
qigong into his 90s. Photos provided to China Daily

Millions owe their well-being to the creator of the country's modern medical care system, the former minister of health Qian Xinzhong, who passed away last year. Pei Pei reports

If Qian Xinzhong's life were summarized in a few words, they would be "the founding father of China's modern healthcare".

The former minister of health, who worked tirelessly to construct the national healthcare system, passed away on Dec 31 at age 98.

Qian accomplished feats such as practically eradicating schistosomiasis - a parasitic disease causing organ damage and impairing children's cognitive growth - malaria and the plague in the country. It's no exaggeration to say that millions have benefited from his efforts.

Born into a penniless farming family in Jiangsu province's Baoshan county in 1911 and orphaned at a young age, Qian endured the hardships most heroes face. His brilliant mind and exceptional work ethic enabled him to overcome his circumstances and become an eminent doctor at a hospital in Shanghai in his 20s.

After the September 18th Incident in 1931, which marked the beginning of Japan's invasion of Northeast China, Qian abandoned his comfortable life in Shanghai to join the Red Army.

The good doctor

He soon won the trust and friendship of Deng Xiaoping, who was then commissar of the 2nd Field Army of People's Liberation Army. Deng always gave priority to Qian's medical aid plan when planning major military campaigns.

After the founding of the People's Republic, Qian won a precious opportunity to study sanitation management in Moscow in 1951. At the No 1 Medical College, he met his future wife, Shen Yuncun, who was also a gifted medical practitioner.

Qian became one of the 802 people conferred in 1955 with the title of "general major" for their contributions to New China's founding.

He returned home with a doctoral degree in 1956 and was nominated vice-minister of health a year later. Qian was put in charge of medical research, and disease prevention and control.

The battle against schistosomiasis would become an almost unparalleled landmark in the achievements of the country's modern healthcare system.

Although its mortality rate is low, schistosomiasis was like a demon before 1950, causing many deaths in villages.

Official records say that in the early 1950s, the disease threatened 100 million people, or one in every 5.5 residents in southern China.

Qian made breakthroughs in beating back its spread by enhancing cooperation among different levels of government, reconstructing water projects and strictly managing sewage.

He was also instrumental in establishing the country's first monitoring system for recording and reporting epidemics.

In addition, Qian edited the five-volume Atlas of Schistosomiasis in China, an important reference for effectively curing the illness in different areas.

In 1967, Qian became one of the country's youngest ministers at age 46. He comprehensively revamped the medical system, according to Chairman Mao Zedong's instructions to shift medical services' focus from cities to the countryside.

The good doctor

Urban practitioners were encouraged to go to the countryside not only to provide free consultations but also to construct a rural healthcare system by training capable farmers to become medical care providers. Equipped with a pack of medicines and rudimentary instruments, these agrarian medics became known as "barefoot doctors".

They earned this name because they would wade into rice paddies and face other harsh conditions to provide care in the countryside.

Some reports say there were up to 1.5 million "barefoot doctors" in the 1970s.

The World Bank and World Health Organization honored China's model as a "successful example of solving shortages of medical services in the rural areas" in the 1970s.

Qian's career peaked during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), when he was sacked because of his close association with Deng Xiaoping.

Premier Zhou Enlai reinstated Qian in 1973 to treat a rampant malaria outbreak spreading through five provinces.

But Qian was again persecuted and imprisoned upon Zhou's death in 1976.

He was reappointed as the minister of health in 1979, as the country recovered from the tumultuous decade that was the "cultural revolution".

Qian, who was fluent in German, Russian, Japanese and English, also enhanced international cooperation on healthcare.

The good doctor

His lifelong friendships with former WHO Director-General Halfdan Mahler and former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto garnered international support for China's healthcare cause.

Mahler shared Qian's view that the barefoot-doctor system and cooperative medical services were essential to compensating for the developing world's lack of medicine and funding.

Qian was entrusted with another tricky mission in 1981, when the maverick - then in his 70s - was appointed deputy director of the State Family Planning Commission. Qian strongly advocated the family planning policy and insisted that medicines supporting the policy should be free. Minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission Li Bin said last September that the country's population would have reached 1.7 billion without family planning.

The United Nations awarded Qian the Population Award in 1983 for his great contributions.

Qian's keen medical insight kept him busy until the late 1990s.

When HIV/AIDS was still new to China in the 1980s, Qian led nationwide publicity campaigns and called on researchers to prepare for its onset.

He led a simple and relaxed life of strict abstinence after retirement and arranged to donate his body to medical research. His youngest daughter Qian Jiaming recalls her father always telling her to focus on her studies rather than worry about her appearance. She and her brother tended to household chores from a young age.

She became a professor at age 39 and is now a gastroenterological specialist with Peking Union Medical Hospital College.

"My father was a well-mannered man who encouraged me to study but never gave my career a leg up," she says.