The Faith of a
The Chinese character that represents his family name is a symbol for "vast ocean." Very appropriate for a man of humble origins who crossed the world's largest ocean to become a recipient of the 1993 Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association Discoverer's Award for his ground-breaking work relating to the drug Prozac. Very appropriate, too, for a man who received this advice from his father 40 years ago: "Go, and find a career that will benefit humankind."
David Wong took his father's words to heart. A desire to ease human suffering has motivated his work as a research neuroscientist - and his role in developing the modern anti-depressant now used by more than 30 million people worldwide.
But there is much more to this complex man than a single discovery. To understand the 1998 Seattle Pacific University Alumnus of the Year, you must begin in Hong Kong, where he was born 62 years ago.
"My parents were devoted Christians," Wong remembers. "They set a good example." His father built up a successful machinist's business while his mother raised the four children: David, Esther, Joseph and Rachel.
Getting ready for school one morning, six-year-old David heard explosions. "Not many people know this," says Wong, "but the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they also attacked Hong Kong. We went out, and just down the street from us the international airport was being bombed. The image I remember the most is smoke, lots of smoke."
The Japanese occupation of Hong Kong ended formal schooling for the duration of the war, but Wong's mother read to her children at night. "She read Robinson Crusoe and biographies about scientists like Thomas Edison and Madame Curie," says Wong. The stories made an impression on him. "I wonder now, why did my mother choose these stories? Why not fairy tales?"
As teenagers, the sons were expected to learn the family business. One day, they tried their skills on the machines, but David succeeded only in cutting off his right thumbnail. Joseph Wong, now a mechanical engineer, realized his brother's special gifts lay elsewhere. "David was a very well-behaved little boy, always had his head buried in a book."
The studious young man went on to major in chemistry at National Taiwan University, followed by an opportunity to study in the United States - at Seattle Pacific College. With a new suit and his father's words of wisdom, David Wong left Hong Kong, arriving at the SPC campus in the summer of 1957.
His two and a half years at Seattle Pacific deeply influenced his life, as did the two professors who made up the entire Chemistry Department: Burton Dietzman and Andy Montana. "They were very caring and outstanding teachers," says Wong. "Their sacrifice allowed us to succeed."
While preparing for his future career, Wong paid tuition by cleaning campus offices and painting buildings. "The foreman thought the Chinese men did the best work because we used brushes in our writing," he recalls, laughing. "We could paint a straight line, so while others made 80 cents an hour, we made a dollar."
Wong was also active in the Chinese Christian Fellowship and a gospel team on campus. "We worked in the missions of downtown Seattle," he says. "We developed a sense of servanthood."
In his senior year, Wong was selected to join the Centurions, a Seattle Pacific men's honorary which recognizes outstanding scholarship and service. "Here I was, walking around with trashbins and paint brushes, yet they chose me as a member. I could not fathom that."
After receiving his diploma from SPC, Wong began a graduate program at Oregon State University. There he met and married Christina Lee, and the couple had their first child, Conrad, two years later. Wong flew through his graduate courses, earning a master's degree in biochemistry in 18 months, and a doctorate from the University of Oregon two years later.
In 1966, the couple tied their belongings to the top of a Ford Galaxy and moved to Philadelphia where Wong took up post-doctoral studies. "We lived over a garage and there was a train that went by every night," remembers Christina Wong. "We roasted in the summer and froze in the winter."
When he completed his post-doctoral work, Wong began the search for a job. A particular company was on his mind. "My grandmother was a diabetic, and I remembered seeing the Lilly logo on a bottle of insulin. Then, when I was in graduate school, I saw a big Lilly sign at a medical conference. I said, 'That's the company I'm going to work for.' "
It was the first place Wong applied and the first job offer he received. He joined the Eli Lilly and Company staff as a senior biochemist in 1968.
David and Christina Wong's move to Indianapolis, site of Lilly's headquarters, was a lasting one. Here they raised their family, which grew to include three boys. They attended the First Presbyterian Church of Southport on Sunday mornings and spent afternoons building another church, a Chinese fellowship which offered Bible study in Chinese for new arrivals.
Quentin Small, their Southport minister for 15 years and a longtime friend, says the Wongs are faithful people. "They take the Christian faith very seriously, and believe they have a responsibility to help Asian immigrants whenever they can."
Conrad Wong recalls that he and his brothers, Mel and Vincent, were raised with pride in their heritage. "We lived in a very Asian way, eating with chopsticks, speaking Chinese as well as English, and with high expectations for ourselves." The three Wong sons have gone on to careers in law, business and behavioral medicine.
Conrad may have a special understanding of his father's life's work. As a psychologist, he sees many of his patients benefit from Prozac. "I am always impressed by how many lives have been improved by this drug," he says. "I am very proud of my dad's significant contributions to science and medicine."
David Wong has worked on many projects at Lilly during his 30-year career, but none has received more attention than Prozac. The "Prozac revolution" began in 1987 when the FDA approved its use in the United States. Almost overnight, the drug became world-famous. Today, it is prescribed to millions of people suffering from depression, and earns billions of dollars for Lilly.
Prozac works by "impacting serotonin, the neurotransmitter that affects depression," says Wong, now a research fellow at Lilly. "Prozac selectively blocks the re-uptake of serotonin in the synapse of a person's brain, allowing recovery from depressive episodes."
That so much suffering has been relieved is gratifying to the scientist. "But it is when one of my friends or acquaintances tells how Prozac has helped them personally that I am most touched," he says.
For critics, especially Christians, who question his work, Wong has a firm answer. "People have asked me how I can believe in God and also practice a science that affects mood and the human mind," he says. "I do not see this as a conflict. I believe that mental illness has a biological origin. Medication is one of God's ways to provide a method of healing and at the same time alleviate suffering."
The tension between the realms of science and faith was a topic of discussion recently between Wong and Seattle Pacific University President Philip Eaton. That conversation inspired the president to call for a symposium on the subject next year, with Wong offering his special perspective.
"David Wong is a world-class scientist," says Eaton, "yet he's a humble and decent man. He also truly cherishes his experience at Seattle Pacific. He is a wonderful example of our mission. Lives do change here - and in turn our alumni go on to change other lives. If you want to understand the true SPU vision, just look at David Wong."