Lives of the fellows

John Hung-Chiu Ho

b.6 July 1916 d.10 August 2005
MB BS Hong Kong(1940) MRCP(1947) FRCR(1959) FRCP(1963)

John Ho, fondly nicknamed ‘Emperor Ho’, was deeply respected as the father of radiology and oncology in Hong Kong. Born to one of the most prominent families in Hong Kong, he was a unique character with amazing determination and a great visionary. With his natural leadership, the young John was elected as president of the students’ union when he was studying in the medical faculty of the University of Hong Kong. He was the captain of many university sports teams, a champion distance runner, an outstanding swimmer and diver.

Soon after his graduation and his marriage in 1940, he (together with a small group of patriotic volunteers) drove two fully-equipped ambulances to the war zone in Guangdong. He volunteered for service in the Red Cross under the Chinese Defense League, and worked in the army field hospitals until the end of the war.

The year 1946 was a critical turning point in his life. With a scholarship awarded by British Council, he not only furthered his training in internal medicine, but he also started studying diagnostic and therapeutic radiology in Britain. He was one of the very few radiologists who had qualifications in both specialties.

For 35 years (from 1950 to 1985), he was the consultant in charge (under the government Medical and Health Department) responsible for the entire radiology services (both diagnostic and therapy). At a time when oncology was poorly recognised, he had to fight through bureaucratic red tape to build the whole spectrum of cancer services from scratch, and many of his ideal goals had to be implemented through private donations.

Starting with a small department and no hospital beds for patients requiring radiotherapy at Queen Mary Hospital, he built a hostel with 32 beds and obtained a van with financial support from Oxfam in 1956 to transport patients for daily treatment. With a generous donation from the Royal Jockey Club, he opened the Institute of Radiology and Oncology at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in 1964, equipped with the most advanced facilities for patient services and a radiobiology unit to provide the infrastructure for basic science research.

In 1964, he also founded the Hong Kong Anti-Cancer Society, a charitable organisation through which he raised extra funding to establish the population-based Hong Kong Cancer Registry, support research and promote public education. Above all, he opened Nam Long Hospital, the first hospital dedicated for terminal care of cancer patients, starting with 120 beds in 1967.

Ho was a great boss and a most inspiring mentor. He was one of the longest serving academics at the University of Hong Kong (an honorary lecturer in radiology since 1950, and honorary clinical professor of radiation oncology since 1983). He set up intensive training programmes, not only for radiologists and oncologists, but also for medical physicists and radiographers. Furthermore, he established the linkage with the Royal College of Radiologists to conduct conjoint fellowship (FRCR) examinations annually in Hong Kong. This greatly facilitates not only local trainees, but also those in other Asian countries.

Four generations of radiologists and oncologists can trace their lineage to Ho as their original mentor, and the department heads in most major oncology centres are his disciples. He was an authoritative figure, but he was also caring and fatherly. To all his staff, he was a role model with impeccable integrity, a constant source of strength. When he retired from public service in 1985, his colleagues and pupils from all disciplines worked together to set up the Ho Hung-Chiu Medical Education Foundation to continue his spirit through sponsoring of training, scholarships/fellowships and research.

He was a very caring doctor with exceptional acumen. To his patients, he was both a trusted friend who brought them hope and good cheer. Even after his retirement from government services, he continued working untiringly as honorary consultant at the Baptist Hospital for another 15 years before he truly retired.

Ho was an internationally renowned scientist on nasopharyngeal cancer (NPC), a cancer prevalent among southern Chinese. At a time when medical knowledge about NPC was practically non-existent, it was his pioneering works on the aetiology, natural history, staging and radiotherapy techniques that have led to better understanding of the carcinogenesis, possibilities for prevention, development of tumor markers for early detection, better prognostication for appropriate tailoring of treatment strategies and more effective treatment. His achievement of five-year disease-specific survival of 52 per cent during 1976 to 1985 was a major breakthrough for what used to be an inevitably fatal cancer. He had published more than 160 chapters in books and papers in international journals.

The recent results in Hong Kong showing gratifying reduction of age-standardised incidence of NPC and further improvement of five-year survival to 80 per cent for patients treated in 1996-2000 were all due to the seeds that Ho had sown during his reign. It was his lifelong crusade against cancer and the enthusiasm that he had inspired among his disciples that led to both the cure and prevention of a major cancer in his home country.

He received numerous honours from many countries, including the order (1966) and commander (1985) of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, the Cavaliere of the Order Al Merito della Republica Italianaa, and honorary fellowships from the American College of Radiology, the Royal College of Radiologists of Australasia and the Hong Kong College of Radiologists. He gave many important lectures, including the 32nd Skinner lecture at the Royal College of Radiologists, the first Werner Henle's memorial lecture at the International Association for Research on Epstein-Barr Virus and Associated Diseases, the inaugural lecture of the Juan A del Regato Foundation, and the Gordon Richards memorial lecture at the Canadian Association of Radiologists. At the University of Hong Kong he received the first Sir Patrick Manson gold medal, gave the sixth Digby memorial lecture and was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree.

He is survived by his wife Florence, his son (a radiation oncologist practising in the United States) and two daughters.

Anne W M Lee

[JHK Coll Radiol 2005;8:117-120; Brit.med.J.,2005 331 578; The Lancet 2005 366 1352]

(Volume XII, page web)

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