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Tsai-Fan Yu - 1911–2007

Tsai-Fan Yu, MD, a physician who made considerable progress in gout research and treatment, died of complications related to a stroke on March 2, 2007, at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan.1 She was 95 years old.

Dr. Yu was born in Shanghai, China, in 1911.2 She attended Peking Union Medical College (PUMC), the premier medical school in China with faculty from John Hopkins University, with a full scholarship. She graduated with honors in 1936 and became chief resident of internal medicine at PUMC in 1939, which was unusual for a female physician.3 She immigrated to New York City in 1947 and became part of the Mount Sinai Medical Center in 1957 where she was appointed the first female full professor in 1973.

She and Alexander B. Gutman, MD, established a link between gout and elevated levels of uric acids in the body. They found that a drug called probenecid could remove excess uric acid by triggering its excretion through the urine.2 This discovery made gout treatable for the first time.3 Another co-discovery was the now-famous medicine, colchicine, which can prevent gout outbreaks and led to a ubiquitous paper published in 1961 in the Annals of Internal Medicine: “Efficacy of Colchicine Prophylaxis in Gout.” Colchicine is an alkaloid in the bulbs of autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale, Liliaceae), a toxic medicinal plant used for inflammation since the time of the Greek physician Hippocrates (circa 460–377 BCE) approximately 2500 years ago.

Dr. Yu also found that the medicine allopurinol was successful in combating gout as well as kidney stones. She continued to write 220 articles in scientific journals over the course of her career.3 Her other achievements included her membership on the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Advisory Board on Metabolic Diseases, the Distinguished Career Achievement Award, and the Master Award from the American Association of Rheumatology.1

“She had such a remarkable, productive life,” said Hua Eleanor Yu, PhD, Yu’s niece and a professor in the Division of Cancer Immunotherapeutics and Tumor Immunology at the Beckman Research Institute City of Hope Medical Center (oral communication, August 24, 2007). “Though perhaps under-recognized for her extraordinary contributions to medicine, she was still able to overcome a lot—it was unheard of for a female to be a chief resident of internal medicine in the 30s, and it is still uncommon today—and it’s quite inspiring.”

Dr. Yu retired at 81 with professor emeritus status in 1992 after helping treat over 4,000 gout patients. She is survived by her adopted son Yu of Manhattan, her brother Jiefei, and her niece Hua Eleanor of Glendora, California.

—Kelly E. Saxton
  1. Pearce J. Tsai-Fan Yu, 95, physician, dies; helped alleviate gout. New York Times. March 15, 2007:A1;21.

  2. Dr. Tsai-Fan Yu: 1911-2007. The National Women’s History Museum Web site: Accessed on June 19, 2007.

  3. Tsai-Fan Yu. New York Times. March 11, 2007:S1(C1);35.