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Trailblazing Women Minority Surgeons

Dr. Yeu-Tsu Margaret Lee: Pioneering Asian-American Military Surgeon

Susan Tsai, MD, MHS, FACS

May 1, 2022

Trailblazing Women Minority Surgeons

As a young child, Dr. Lee recalled her mother bemoaning their lack of access to medical care. These were formative experiences, which propelled her from a very young age to pursue a career in medicine.

Portrait of Dr. Lee by Pamela Chen, MD
Portrait of Dr. Lee by Pamela Chen, MD

The artist, Dr. Chen, is a pediatrics resident, Boston Combined Residency Program, Boston Children’s Hospital and Boston Medical: pamela.chen@childrens.harvard.edu. For more information on the artist and painting, see: Chen P, Kasper J, Khoshbin S. The Women Before Me: My Journey Painting Honor Wall Portraits of Women Physicians. Acad Med. 2021; 9(8):1091-1094. MID: 34010860. Available at: https://bit.ly/3KeS9bX.

Yeu-Tsu Margaret Lee, MD, FACS, was awarded the 2018 Dr. Mary Edwards Walker Inspiring Women in Surgery Award, which the WiSC presents annually. Nearly 4 years later, her inspirational life story continues to draw interest. Despite a life marked by extreme adversity, her resilience and endless desire to be of service to others has left a lasting and remarkable legacy of humanitarian service.

“A lotus flower blooms most beautifully from the deepest and thickest mud.” –Chinese proverb

Perilous Childhood

Dr. Lee was born in Xian, China, to a large family of six children.* Her father was a lawyer, and her mother was a high school teacher. From the age of 5, she experienced tremendous adversity. Her family survived the 1937 Nanjing Massacre during the Japanese occupation of China, which claimed the lives of approximately 300,000 Chinese people in just 6 weeks. At that time, her family fled Nanjing to Chongqing, but because of the harsh conditions, three of her older siblings died of dysentery. As a young child, she recalled her mother bemoaning their lack of access to medical care. These were formative experiences, which propelled her from a very young age to pursue a career in medicine.

After living through another massacre in the Communist Revolution in 1949, her family was uprooted a second time and forced to flee to Taiwan. Her family lived in reduced circumstances, having lost many of their possessions in the preceding displacements.

Despite these personal hardships, Dr. Lee continued to excel as a student. Although women were rarely encouraged or accepted for post-baccalaureate training, Dr. Lee was accepted into the prestigious National Taiwan University, Taipei. Unfortunately, her family could only afford to support her education there for a little more than a year. To continue her education, she received additional support from a Catholic missionary organization, which sponsored the completion of her education in the US.

Dr. Lee with her mother, father, and younger sister
Dr. Lee with her mother, father, and younger sister

Medical Education and Training

In 1955, Dr. Lee emigrated to study at the University of South Dakota, Sioux City, on a scholarship and completed her undergraduate education. She continued to excel academically and was accepted into Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, on a full scholarship. She was one of four women in a class of 90 students. Dr. Lee graduated from Harvard Medical School cum laude 4 years later. During her student clerkship at Boston’s Children’s Hospital, she remembered seeing a baby with gastroschisis. It was then that she began to appreciate the indispensable role of surgery to correct disease, and Dr. Lee decided to become a surgeon.

Surgical training programs rarely accepted women at that time. However, Dr. Lee knew Charles Gardiner Child III, MD, FACS, chair of surgery at Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston. He had accepted the position of chair of surgery at the University of Michigan School of Medicine, Ann Arbor, and she applied to that residency program and was accepted in 1961. When she joined the University of Michigan, she was the only woman in the department of surgery, including trainees and faculty.

While in Ann Arbor, she met and married her husband. Unfortunately, she suffered a series of miscarriages and hospitalizations, which interrupted her residency. Given the pyramidal training program structure at the time, she was asked to transition to research. Instead, Dr. Lee transferred to the University of Missouri School of Medicine, Columbia, where she completed her surgical residency and went on to complete a clinical fellowship in surgical oncology.

Military Surgical Career

Following her training, Dr. Lee was retained as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri until 1973, when she was recruited to the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, as an associate professor and the head of the tumor surgery service. During this time, she practiced at Los Angeles County Hospital and trained several residents from Tripler Army Medical Center, Honolulu, HI, who were doing rotations at the University of Southern California Medical Center—also known as the Los Angeles County Hospital—to gain experience with penetrating trauma. She began to develop a reputation both nationally and abroad as an educator and surgeon.

In 1983, she accepted the position of chief of surgical oncology at Tripler. She served as the coordinator and facilitator of the educational program for the general surgery service and was responsible for the emergency medical team. In 1990, she volunteered for a tour of duty as part of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. She volunteered because she was the only surgeon at Tripler who did not have young children, so she felt it was her duty to serve.

She was deployed to northern Saudi Arabia as a general surgeon with the 13th Evacuation Hospital, the 332nd Medical Brigade, and the Seventh Army Corps. While she was there, the medical corps built a 400-bed hospital with three operating rooms. She cared for both soldiers and prisoners of war. Following the war, she was promoted to the rank of colonel and awarded the “A” Proficiency Designator—the highest level of professional accomplishment within the Army Medical Department. Dr. Lee’s receipt of the American College of Surgeons Mary Edwards Walker Inspiring Women in Surgery Award was particularly meaningful, as Dr. Walker was the first female surgeon to serve in the US Army, paving the way for women in surgery and the military.

(1)	Dr. Lee, first row, far left, as a University of Michigan resident. (2) 1990: Deployment to Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. (3) Dr. Lee completing her first marathon at age 40
(1) Dr. Lee, first row, far left, as a University of Michigan resident. (2) 1990: Deployment to Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. (3) Dr. Lee completing her first marathon at age 40

A Lifetime of Grace under Fire

Unfortunately, in 1999, Dr. Lee was involved in a serious motor vehicle collision that required a prolonged intensive care unit stay and multiple reconstructive procedures. Following her accident, she retired from the US Army but remained active as a clinical professor of surgery at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu. In her retirement, she continued to feel an urge to serve, and she began to participate in medical mission trips. For the next 18 years, she partnered with a not-for-profit medical organization, Surgical Medical Assistance Relief Teams (SMART). The goal of this organization is to provide healthcare services to children in low-income countries.

For the next 8 years, she would travel the world to care for underserved populations. In this capacity, Dr. Lee served as a leader of the Central American Surgical Tour Group to the People’s Republic of China. She led the Hawaiian Medical Mission to China and was a leader of the women’s delegation to Russia and Romania. She continued to teach surgery at Tzu-Chi Buddhist Medical Center in Hualien, Taiwan, four times a year. In addition, she participated in medical missions to Ghana, Honduras, Cambodia, Laos, and the Philippines.

(1-3) Dr. Lee participating in missionary surgery. (4) Dr. Lee and her Peace Garden during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.
(1-3) Dr. Lee participating in missionary surgery. (4) Dr. Lee and her Peace Garden during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.

Surgeons are no strangers to adversity. Indeed, some would say that surgeons flourish in times of crisis. Dr. Lee exemplifies the indomitable spirit that many surgeons strive to achieve, not only in her professional life, but in her personal life as well. For example, when she moved to Hawaii, the US Army Physical Readiness Test (PRT) motivated her to start running. Not only did she start running to pass the PRT but at the age of 40, she ran her first marathon and went on to run 16 more marathons.


Throughout her life, Dr. Lee encountered many challenges and persevered, but her greatest legacy may be her service to humankind. Although she was no stranger to war and conflict, she was tirelessly motivated to be of service to others, perhaps always haunted by her own childhood experiences. Dr. Lee embodies endless optimism for a better future. Even during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, you could find her tending to a Peace Garden at the base.