Dr. Chen-Yuan Lee 李鎮源 院士
Professor Chen-yuan Lee 李鎮源 was born in the town of Kiô-á-thâu (橋子頭) of Kaohsiung Prefecture in 1915, born to a distinguished family originally from Tainan City. At the time Taiwan was under Japanese sovereignty. Upon finishing high school, he matriculated in the Taihoku Imperial University in Taipei, one of the seven “Imperial Universities” in pre-war Japan. In 1936 he was among the first students to enter the Medical Faculty. Upon graduation in 1940 a number of the Japanese faculty attempted to recruit him to their laboratories. However, he took up a position as teaching assistant at the Institute of Pharmacology under the direction of Professor Tsung-ming Tu 杜聰明, the only Taiwanese professor in the Medical Faculty at the time. Professor Tu’s main interest was toxicological research on the snake venom and opium. Lee received his M.D. degree with his research on the venom of the poisonous viper Vipera russelli formosensis. Thus began his life-long career in snake venom research.
Taiwan’s gift to science. Since the world-renowned French scientist Claude Bernard’s research on the South American arrow poison in the 19th century, it had been known for over 100 years that the nerve transmits its signal to muscles by way of a special receptor on the muscle surface. However, many attempts at isolating the special receptor had failed. The main obstacle was the lack of a suitable “tag” to label the receptor so that researchers could track the progress of isolation. The turning point came when Dr. Lee and his student C. C. Chang 張傳炯 isolated a toxin from the venom of an indigenous Taiwanese snake. The two researchers were studying the venom of the Formosan banded crait, Bungarus multicinctus, a species closely related to the Bengal snake, Bungarus bungarus, which figures prominently in an episode of Sherlock Holmes. In 1963 they successfully isolated from the venom two neurotoxins which they named α-bungarotoxin and β-bungarotoxin. They found that the snake produces α-bungarotoxin to specifically bind to the special receptor on the muscle surface and block the nerve transmission. They realized that this toxin was what scientists all over the world were dreaming to have for tagging the receptor in order to help extracting it from the muscle surface. Dr. Lee took the toxin and visited many research laboratories in the world, extolling the virtue of the toxin. Eventually in 1970 two prominent laboratories, one at the University College London and the other the Pasteur Institute in Paris, simultaneously reported that they used α-bungarotoxin to successfully isolate the long sought-after receptor from the muscle surface. With this breakthrough a long sequence of advances in neuroscience followed, eventually leading to much improvement in the understanding and therapy of many neuromuscular diseases.
Tributes for his contribution to the breakthrough in science soon followed. In 1976 Dr. Lee received the Redi Award, the highest honor bestowed by the International Society on Toxinology. He was invited by the German publisher in science Springer Verlag to edit a volume specifically on Snake Venoms (please see Figure above), which was published in 1979 in the prestigious series of Handbuch der experimentellen Pharmakologie. The handbook series was started by German scientists at the founding of modern pharmacology in the 19th century and have been regarded as the “final word” in pharmacology. It is a mark of highest distinction for a scientist to be the chief editor of a handbook devoted to the subject of his/her research interest. Subsequently in 1985, Dr. Lee was elected president of the International Society on Toxinology.
Advocate for human rights in Taiwan. After World War II Taiwan was ruled by the dictator Chiang Kai-Shek and his eldest son Chiang Ching-Kuo. The regime, supported by the U.S., put the whole island under martial laws for 50 years, which was marked as a reign of terror, abject subjugation of the Taiwanese and native peoples, and trampling of human rights and civil liberties. There was no freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of association. People would disappear without a trace. The Presbyterian Church in Taiwan was a frequent target of harassment. Against this background, Dr. Lee joined other university colleagues and intellectuals to protest against the government in late 1980s. Following the abolishment of the martial laws, the Nationalist government used a loosely interpreted Criminal Code Article 100 (刑法100條) to arrest and persecute protestors and opposition members. Dr. Lee, who had been an Academician of Taiwan’s National Academy of Science (Academia Sinica 中央研究院 院士) since 1970, became a leader of the movement against this law. The most famous demonstration was the one in which he and other protestors held a lying-in on the broad avenue leading to the Presidential House. This eloquent act awakened Taiwan’s society and subsequently the Criminal Code Article 100 was abolished, another defining achievement for Dr. Lee.
Eventually the tide was turned against the Nationalist regime, which lost the presidential election in 2000 to the opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party. At the victory rally in the night of 18 March 2000, the national TV networks showed a Dr. Lee, standing on the stage right behind the president-elect Mr. Chen Shui-bian, smiling with the happiest smile he ever had in his life.
In two most important things in his life, science for the world and democracy for Taiwan, Dr. Lee was able to make the greatest contributions. Professor Lee passed away on 1 November 2001 following an illness of blood dyscrasia. Dr. Barbara Hawgood of Queen Elizabeth College, London, writing about Dr. Lee’s life in the scientific journal Toxicon, concludes most aptly, “Professor Chen-Yuan Lee is held in high regard and great respect, both in his own country and internationally.”
Barbara J. Hawgood (2002). Professor Chen-Yuan Lee, MD (1915-2001), pharmacologist: snake venom research at the Institute of Pharmacology, National Taiwan University. Toxicon 40: 1065-1072.
Lindy Yeh (2001). Newsmaker: Taiwan loses a fiery independence fighter. Taipei Times November 3rd, 2001. http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/archives/2001/11/03/0000109885
** The article above has been contributed by Emeritus Prof. Chau H. Wu of Northwestern University, a former student of Dr. Lee at the National Taiwan University **
* Related Website: http://taiwantt.org.tw/taiwanspirit/html/40.htm