Here’s a fascinating, inspiring, and uplifting profile in history. Her name was Faith Sai So Leong. In 1905 she graduated from the San Francisco College of Physicians and Surgeons. At the time she was the only woman in a class of 40 students.
But not only was she the only woman in that graduating class. Upon graduation, she became the first Chinese woman to earn a degree in dentistry. Her graduation was a great feat in the U.S. Yet when you take into account the fact that only 2% of Chinese women were taught to read, what she accomplished was truly monumental.
Her journey to that graduation day is an incredible story of the American Dream. Her parents sent her to the U.S. at the age of 12 to live with a cousin in San Francisco’s Chinatown. There, she caught the eye of Agnes Nickerson, a young English teacher.
Agnes took the young Sai So into her home, where she worked part-time as a domestic servant. While working, she was home-schooled by the Nickersons. It was when the Nickerson’s adopted her that she received the name “Faith” as part of her Methodist baptism.
Mrs. Nickerson told her associate Ruth Berg—an early publicist of the women’s movement—that she had noticed certain qualities in Faith. She proved quite handy around the house, quite adept at mechanical work that “usually fell to the lot of a man.” In addition, Faith had a Chinese cousin who practiced dentistry. She spent her down time there and in the process became fond of the job.
With her cousin’s encouragement and Mrs. Nickerson’s financial aid, Faith enrolled in the 1905 class at the School of Physicians and Surgeons. In the beginning she was one of three female students. They soon, however, dropped out leaving Faith alone. Despite this and her loose command of the English language, Faith rose to the challenge.
Faith’s Later Life
Faith turned out to be an excellent dentist. She relocated her practice to Oakland in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In 1909 she married Nam Owyang, the son of the secretary to the Chinese Consul to San Francisco. With him she bore two sons. In 1912, as part of her gratitude to Mrs. Nickerson, Faith took in her aging benefactor to live with her family.
Tragically, Faith’s life was cut short in 1929. While walking with her 11 year old son in Chinatown, a runaway car struck her, pinning her against a wall. She had pushed her son out of the car’s path and took the full brunt of the collision. She was only 47.
In her short life Faith embodied the ideal of the American Dream. Despite the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and general xenophobia among America’s population, Faith surmounted the overwhelming odds stacked against her. Her story is an inspiration to all.
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