Dr Robert Hsun-Piao Yuan, “the neurosurgeon of the neurosurgeon”, dies at 99

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He was 99 when he died on October 3 in his Newton Center home while in hospice care for failing health.

“I have seen in your practice your belief that it is our privilege to take care of the patient. I will try to never forget the truth about this, ”wrote Kristine Hansen, a medical colleague, in one of the many letters of tribute that Dr. Yuan received when he retired in 1997, at 75 years old.

“I have great respect for the Christian faith and spirituality that permeates your entire life and guides you on your path,” added Hansen.

Dr Yuan, who had been head of neurosurgery at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Leonard Morse Hospital in Natick; and Framingham Union Hospital, “Has been called the neurosurgeon of the neurosurgeon by neurosurgeons and neurologists,” said his son, Dr. Robin Yuan, a surgeon who lives in Beverly Hills, California.

The geographic distance between her career in Los Angeles and her father’s in Greater Boston, Robin said, was intentional.

“I always thought I couldn’t live up to his reputation,” he said, “so I went as far as I could.”

Among the doctors Dr Robert Yuan mentored, both inside and outside his specialty in neurosurgery, was Dr David Ho, a prominent AIDS researcher who had been Robin’s roommate when the two were attending the Medical School.

“It goes without saying that Dr. Yuan was a perfect role model for a young medical student like me,” Ho said in a tribute video last year when Dr. Yuan received a Sojourner Award from the Chinese Historical Society of New England.

He was “a giant figure in Boston’s neurosurgical and Chinese-American communities,” Ho said.

Dr Yuan’s family said he helped start a Chinese family summer camp in Foxborough in the 1960s, the Chinese language school in Newton, and the Chinese Cultural Association of Greater Boston.

He and his wife, Dr. Grace Chen Yuan, opened their home to many Chinese visitors in the 1970s after the United States government established normal diplomatic relations with the country, and their family returned to visit parents in the couple’s country of origin, once possible.

The Yuan hosted “doctors, scientists, government officials, business groups, university and graduate students, church officials and bishops,” their children wrote.

Dr Yuan also founded the former Chinese American Neurological Society, which during its existence encouraged connections between physicians from both countries.

He was able to combine painstaking work as a surgeon, advocating for other Chinese people, and supporting his family, in part because “there was an incredible balance he had with him all the time. He wouldn’t let things get to him, ”said his daughter Fran de Belmont.

Dr Yuan “had such self-confidence and didn’t think of obstacles, but rather of opportunities,” his daughter Annette of Boulder, Colorado, wrote in an email. “He never took his great fortune in life for granted. Her favorite saying was “all the blessings of this life” that God had given her. “

In a poem written for their father’s 50th birthday, in 1972, Robin concluded with the line:

See the proud and skillful surgeon

Extending his firm hand to all.

How to thank your father

to guide you through the ever-lit labyrinth

to be what he is?

Dr Yuan was born on March 4, 1922 in present-day Ningbo, China. Her father was Reverend Yuan Wen-You and her mother was Shen Wang-Yun, although the spelling of their names varies depending on the translation and dialect.

Her mother was a teacher, principal and school administrator. She died when Dr. Yuan was about 1 year old. , a teacher, a principal and a school administrator.

Dr. Yuan was around 5 years old when his father passed away and he was raised by his mother-in-law. At the time of his death, he was the last surviving brother of the two marriages.

The youngest of his parents’ eight children, Dr Yuan was the grandson of Tsae-seng Sing, the first clergyman of Chinese descent to become a bishop in the Anglican Communion. Dr Yuan attended St. John’s University, a Christian college in Shanghai that was established by Anglican missionaries.

He graduated in 1947 and continued his medical education in the United States at the University of Pennsylvania and Parkersburg, W. Va.

While at Penn, he met Dr. Grace Chen, the only woman in his class at the University of Pennsylvania medical school. They married in 1952, three days after graduating.

In Greater Boston, she was a physician-researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“Grace is remembered even to this day for the great zeal and patriotic spirit she displayed,” Dr Yuan said in an interview with The Globe for his wife’s obituary upon her death in 2010. ” A woman before her time when opportunities and voices for Chinese women were few, she urged female students to do great deeds for China and, just as important, to have their thoughts and ideas heard.

Dr Yuan began a neurosurgery residency at what was then New England Medical Center Hospital and later became Tufts-New England Medical Center.

He then joined the medical center staff and remained with the full-time faculty at Tufts until he left to start a private practice and then to become Head of Neurosurgery at Mount Auburn, Leonard Morse and Framingham Union Hospitals.

In his youth, his son Robin accompanied Dr. Yuan to the hospital, which inspired him to pursue medicine.

“Seeing how he treated people in the hospital, from patients to hospital janitors, colored my approach to medicine by being very humble and respectful of everyone around you,” Robin said.

Fran said their father “was very low-key in some ways, but he had a certain charisma. Everything about him communicated: “I want to be with you and I want to know a little more about you. “

Dr Yuan embraced his new country, learning to ski and, with his wife, taking their children to visit the United States.

“I have such fond memories of family vacations always involving travel,” Annette wrote. “At first it just meant camping in New England, but as we got older and Dad had the finances we would travel to Canada or Florida or the American West and then Europe. He put a lot of value in travel.

A service will be announced for Dr. Yuan, who in addition to his three children, leaves five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Dr Yuan “felt so blessed,” said Annette, who added that in one of their last exchanges, he answered “to my question,” Daddy, you are dying “, because ‘he lost interest in eating. His response was, “I hope so. Annette, I have had a wonderful life. He was satisfied.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.


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