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Register of the Choh Hao Li Papers, 1937-1987
MSS 88-9  
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  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Biographical Statement
  • Scope and Content

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Choh Hao Li Papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1937-1987
    Collection number: MSS 88-9
    Collector: Li, Choh Hao
    Extent: Number of containters: 51 cartons, 5 boxes, 1 oversize box

    Linear feet: approx. 65
    Repository: University of California, San Francisco. Library. Archives and Special Collections.
    San Francisco, California 94143-0840
    Shelf location: For current information on the location of these materials, please consult the Library's online catalog.
    Language: English.

    Administrative Information


    Since some of the materials in the Li papers contain medical information on named individuals all users of the collection must sign a confidentiality agreement, stating that they will not use the names of any individual in association with medical information. Carton 49-56 have further restrictions on use, consult with Special Collections staff on availabilty.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], Choh Hao Li Papers, MSS 88-9, Archives & Special Collections, UCSF Library & CKM

    Biographical Statement


    Born April 21, 1913 in Canton China, Choh Hao Li received a B.S. (Chemistry) from the University of Nanking and taught there for two years before coming to U.C. Berkeley in 1935. After receiving his Ph.D. in Physio-organic Chemistry from Berkeley in 1938 he went to work as a Research Assistant in Herbert McLean Evan's Experimental Biology Laboratory advancing to lecturer and then through Assistant and Associate Professor. In 1950 he was made full professor and became the first director of the newly created Hormone Research Laboratory (HRL). Li moved with the HRL to the University of California San Francisco campus in 1967. He officially retired in 1983, but as emeritus professor, from 1983 until his death in 1987, he headed the Laboratory of Molecular Endocrinology.
    During his career, Li received at least 25 scientific awards and 10 honorary degrees, and published 1,100 scientific articles with over 300 collaborators. He also chaired numerous symposia, served on local, national, and international advisory boards and edited several scientific journals and books.
    A pioneer in the field of bio-chemistry, Li devoted his professional life to unlocking the secrets of the pituitary gland. He was either the first, or one of the first, to identify and/or purify eight of the nine hormones of the anterior pituitary. The identification, purification and later synthesis of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) or somatatropin, and the identification of beta-endorphin were his two most widely recognized achievements, but he also worked on ACTH (corticotrophin), the gonadotropins --leuteinizing hormone (LH) and follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), thyrotropin, prolactin, melanocyte stimulating hormone (MSH), and lipotropin. His last accomplishment was the identification and purification of insulin-like growth factor I. While not a clinician or directly involved in clinical research, Li's discoveries had direct clinical impact, especially in the areas of growth and fertility.


    One of 11 children of a Cantonese industrialist, Li grew up in a family that stressed education. All of his siblings attended college, many going on to advanced study, and at least three spending some time in the United States. His elder brother Choh-Ming Li, received a doctorate in Economics from U.C. Berkeley and later became the Vice-Chancellor of the Chinese University in Hong Kong and was considered for a UN education post. Another brother, Choh-Luh, was a neurosurgeon at the National Institute for Health (NIH), in Bethesda, Maryland, and a third brother, Choh Hsien, was director of Minneapolis-Honeywell Corporation's research division. Li met his future wife, Shen Hwai Lu (Annie), in 1931 at the University of Nanking. They married in 1938, after he had received his doctorate and convinced her to pursue graduate studies in the United States. She received her masters in Agricultural Economics from U.C. Berkeley when their eldest child was two. Mrs. Li reported that C.H. discussed the titles, introductions and conclusions of his papers with her, allowing her to make suggestions and briefed her on the daily happenings at the laboratory. He worked 6 or 7 days a week until he was in his in his mid-fifties and she convinced him to cut back to 5 days so that they could spend their weekends in the country. They had three children all of whom received professional degrees. Their son, Wei-i, became a doctor, and daughters Anne-si and Eva , a veterinarian and an environmental designer.
    Choh Hao Li became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1955.


    Li graduated from Pui Ying High School in Canton in 1929, at sixteen years of age, and went on the University of Nanking where he received his bachelors degree in 1933. After teaching two years at Nanking (1933-35) he applied for admission to graduate schools in the United States. The University of California at Berkeley where his older brother Choh-Ming was attending was his first choice. However he did receive immediate acceptance into the U.C. program, because the Dean, Gilbert Newton Lewis was skeptical of Li's Chinese undergraduate degree. The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor did accept him. On his way East to Ann Arbor Li stopped at Berkeley to visit his brother and make one last try at admittance. Li showed Dean Lewis his first scientific paper in English, recently published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS). The paper's senior researcher, Ward V. Evans of Northwestern University, was known and respected by Lewis, and subsequently Li was admitted to the program on six months probation. Three years later, in 1938, Li received his doctorate degree.


    Anti-Asian sentiment was strong during the Depression, making jobs and housing difficult to find for a young Chinese man. Biologist Herbert Evans took an interest in the young chemist and offered him a tiny work space in the Basement of his Experimental Biology Laboratory (EBLl) in the Life Sciencees Building at Berkeley. At the EBL, Evans was beginning to explore the workings of the pituitary galnd and Li's chemistry background was essential for the success of the research. However, this cooperation between Chemistry and Biology was new and his biologist lab-mates reportedly did not know what to make of Li and left him to his own devices. It was during these early years with Dr. Evans that Li developed the techniques necessary to isolate hormones from the brain and identify their chemical structure. This research paved the way for a series of discoveries which greatly increased scientific knowledge and had a profound effect on the understanding and treatment of a variety of diseases and conditions.
    Li's first success came in 1940 when he isolated luteinizing hormone, the first hormone from the anterior pituitary, which along with follicle stimulating hormone, is important in sexual development and fertility. With his isolation of bovine growth hormone (1944) Li began to receive notice. During this period he advanced from Research Associate (1938) to Lecturer in Chemical Morphology (1942), becoming Assistant Professor of Experimental Biology in 1944. Li became an Associate Professor in 1947 the same year he received the CIBA Award in Endocrinology. In 1948 he received a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, which he appied to fund research under the direction of Arne Tiselius at the University of Uppsala in Uppsala, Sweden. Tiselius had won the 1948 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work with separating the proteins in the blood stream. He also developed equipment and techniques for separation of proteins and became the leader in protein chromatography. Li was originally supposed to spend six months in Sweden and then return to Berkeley, however, while at Uppsala, Li extended his stay.
    Fearing Li's loss, UC administrators acted quickly to meet his research needs. Li returned to Berkeley in 1950 as a full Professor with joint appointments in the newly created Berkeley Biochemistry Department and the San Francisco Experimental Endocrinology Department. At the same time he was named Director of the newly designated Hormone Research Institute. Li maintained strong ties with Tiselius and two future directors of University of Uppsala departments, Dr. C.A. Gemzell, Chairman (1959-72) Department of OB/GYN and Dr. Jerker Porath, Director Institute of Biochemistry, trained under Li at the HRL. The isolation of human growth hormone in 1955 and the successful synthesis of human growth hormone in 1971 confirmed Li's place in scientific history. The direct clinical applications of growth hormone in the treatment of children with hypo-pituitary dwarfism drew Li into cooperation with clinical trials and publicity of these discoveries provoked floods of letters to Li and the HRL.
    The University of Chicago attempted to recruit Li in the late 1950s, but he remained with the University of California. In 1967 both the lab and his professorial affiliations moved from Berkeley to San Francisco. The change in location appears to have had little or no effect on the laboratories focus or function. Li continued to unlock the secrets of the pituitary. He and his lab were responsible for the isolation and amino acid sequencing of prolactin (ovine) which stimulates milk production, the semi-synthesis of ovine corticotrophin and the total synthesis of human ACTH (adrenocorticotropin) which were important in the treatment of inflammatory disease before the development of cortico-steroids, the isolation and sequencing of lutropin (ovine and human) and thyrotropin (human), and the isolation, sequence determination and synthesis of b-melanotropin or b-MSH (porcine, bovine and camel), as well as the discovery, isolation, structure and synthesis of corticotropin-inhibiting peptide.
    His final major discovery while at HRL grew out of his labs isolation, in 1964, of sheep lipotropin which had powerful lipid-mobilizing properties. It also appeared to be a precursor of b-MSH. Li felt that there was more to this protein than was immediately obvious. In 19__ he first discovered that lipotropin could be cleaved to yield b-endorphin, a protein with morphine-like effects first isolated by Li from camel pituitaries and later human and other species. This led to two new fields of research, the defining of "pro-hormone" precursors, and the study of endorphin and the enkephalins. b-endorphin sparked a whole new area of clinical research and cooperation. It was hoped that b-endorphin would help with pain relief since camels who produce relatively large amounts of this protein are almost totally impervious to pain. It was also investigated as a possible treatment for drug addiction, depression, and schizophrenia.
    He retained his professorships and directorship until his "retirement" in 1983 when William Rutter became Director of the HRL, and shifted the laboratories focus towards biochemistry/biophysics. Li was then given his own Molecular Endocrinology Laboratory which he ran until his death from Cancer in 1987. His last major accomplishment, the identification and purification of insulinlike growth factor I in 198_ took place at the Molecular Endocrinology lab and he was awarded his final honor --the Pierce Award at the Tenth American Peptide Symposium in 1987 just months before his death.
    Other awards and honors earned by Li during his life include the California Section Award of the American Chemical Society (1951), the Francis Amory Septennial Prize of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1955), a Gold Medal from the Minister of Education of the Republic of China (1958), the first Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research (1962), the Golden Plate Award from the American Academy of Achievement (1964), a Gold Medal from the City of Milan, Italy (1967), the University Medal in Liege, Belgium (1968), the City of Hope National Medical Center Award (1969), the Modern Medicine Distinguished Achievement Award (1970), a Scientific Achievement Award from the American Medical Association (1970), the National Award of the American Cancer Society (1971), the Nicholas Andry Award from the Association of Bone and Joint Surgeons (1972), the Lewis Price of the American Philosophical Society (1977), the Nichols Medal of the American Chemical Society (1979), a Science Award from the Academia Santa Chiara, Genoa, Italy (1979), the Koch Award of the Endocrine Society (1981), the Heyrovsky Gold Plaque of Honor for Achievement in Chemistry from the Czechoslovakia Academy of Sciences (1982) and the Luft Medal of the Swedish Society of Endocrinology (1986).
    He also received awards from a number of Chinese-American organizations including the Chinese-American Citizen Alliance (1961), the Chinese Society of Engineers (1965), the Chinese-American Physicians Society (1977), The Shoong Foundation (1980), the Chinese Hospital of San Francisco, the American Chinese Medical Society (1983) and the Mid-America Chinese Science and Technology Association (1984).
    Though nominated at least twice for the Nobel prize, this highest of scientific awards eluded him, though he was invited to nominate a candidate for the 1957 Nobel for Physiology and Medicine. He nominated Dr. Charles Huggins. Li was also active on the prize committees for the Lasker (1970, 1975, 1979, and 86) and Amory Prizes (1977, 1979, 1981-87) as well as serving on grant review committees for the American Cancer Society (1971-83).
    Li's association with the University of California spanned more than five decades, during which he served as mentor to a number of students who went on to prominent scientific careers including several department heads. Alumni of the HRL include: Dr. Yehudith Birk, Hebrew University, Israel; Dr. R.D. Cole, University of California Berkeley, Dr. Laszlo Graf, Institute of Drug Research, Budapest, Hungary; Dr. C.Y. Lee, Chinese University, Hong Kong; J.E. Leonis, University of Brussels, Belgium; Dr. Lin Ma, Vice-chancellor, The Chinese University of Hong Kong; Dr. T.B. Lo, National Taiwan University; Dr. N.R. Moudgal, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India, Dr. Willem Oelofsen, University of Port Elizabeth, South Africa; Dr. Brian T. Pickering, University of Bristol England; Dr. R.S. Schwyzer, Swill Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich; and Dr. P.G. Squire, Colorado State University.
    He also received honorary degrees from 10 Universities. Including three in 1971, the year that the synthesis of Human Growth Hormone was announced (University of the Pacific, Marquette University and Saint Peter's College ). The other degrees were from the Catholic University of Chile (1962), Chinese University of Hong Kong (1970), University of Uppsala, Sweden (1977), University of San Francisco (1978), Long Island University (1979), University of Colorado (1981), and the Medical College of Pennsylvania (1982).
    Li is credited with being an excellent teacher who encouraged the free flow of ideas within his laboratory. Hew was always ready to play devil's advocate and pressed his students and associates to be creative as well as able to back up there opinions. More than one student wrote Li, after leaving his lab, that they missed the openness and independent working conditions that Li provided.

    Professional Activities

    Beyond his academic and lab duties Li was very active in the wider scientific community serving on the Scientific Advisory Board for the Sloan Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, New York (1952-55), and as Scientific Advisor for the Children's Cancer Research Foundation, Boston (1963-73), in the United States. He was also active in promoting the study of science and specifically Biochemistry in China through his service on the advisory boards of two Chinese Institutions. He served on the Academic Advisory Board of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (1963 -87), and as Chairman of the Advisory Board (1971-77), then as Corresponding Member (1979-83) and finally again as Chairman (1983-87) of the Institute of Biological Chemistry of the Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan,
    He also served chairman or president for a number of national and international scientific symposia including the International Symposium on Protein and Polypeptide Hormones, Liege, Belgium (1963), Conference on Glycoproteins with Hormonal Activities, National Institutes of Health (1971), Second International Symposium on Growth Hormone, Milan Italy (1971), Symposium on Gonadotropins, Bangalore, India (1973), International Symposium on Growth Hormone and Related Peptides, Milan, Italy (1975), 12th Miles International Symposium on Peptide Hormones, Baltimore (1979), and the International Symposium Growth Hormone and Other Biologically Active Peptides, Milan Italy (1979). At the time of his death he was making plans to attend yet another international event, the centennial celebration at the Catholic University in Santiago, Chile, hosted by his long-time associate Hector R. Croxatto.
    Publishing is an integral part of modern academic scientific practice and Li published with a vengeance, authoring or co-authoring over 1000 papers during his career and collaborated with at least 300 other scientists. He also shared his knowledge through a variety of editorial activities. He Edited Hormonal Proteins and Peptides,volumes 1-11, (Academic Press Inc.) 1973-83.


    There are no documents relating to his editing of vol 13 (1987).
    And he co edited Methods in Medical Research, volume 3, 1950 and Perspectives in the Biochemistry of Large Molecules, Supplement I, Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics, 1962, was Section Editor of Amino Acids, Peptides and Proteins, Chemical Abstracts, 1960-63 and Specialist Subject Editor for the International Encyclopedia of Pharmacology and Therapeutics(Pergamon Press) 1975-77. He served first as Co-associate Editor (1969-76) and then as Editor-in-Chief (1977-87) for the International Journal of Peptide and Protein Research, as well as serving on editorial advisory boards for both Scientific and Popular journals such as the Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics (1959-68, 1985-87), General and Comparative Endocrinology(1961-66), Molecular Pharmacology (1965-68), Family Health(1969-82), Current Topics in Experimental Endocrinology (1969-87), and Biopolymers (1979-86).
    Li was also actively involved in the creation of Pituitary Banks, in an attempt to insure an adequate amount of human pituitaries for both research and clinical uses. The lack of adequate supplies of pituitaries from which to extract human growth hormone for the treatment of more than a token number of dwarf children was a major motivating factor in the push to synthesize the hormone.
    In order to insure the funding of his work Li and Alice Fordyce of the Lasker Foundation organized the Hormone Research Foundation around 1968. Li served as President of the Foundation until his death.

    Scope and Content


    The Choh Hao Li papers consist of 52 cartons and 2 boxes containing files spanning his career at the University of California, (1938-87) with the bulk of the material dating from the 1960s through his retirement from the Hormone Research Laboratory (1983). The papers represent his scientific, administrative, collegial and private life. Topics covered by the papers include research documentation (laboratory notebooks, paper drafts, tables, and correspondence about research with a variety of colleagues), acquisition of research materials --especially animal and human pituitary glands, work on advisory, editorial and other professional committees, clinical trials and requests for help from the public, and some materials on the direction of the Hormone Research Laboratory and University of California administrative files. There are also some biographical and personal items in the collection, including material on Li's visa status in the 1930s and 40s, as well as letters to and from his wife and children during his lengthy travels. Materials in the collection include: correspondence, laboratory notebooks, research notes, manuscripts, reprints, administrative files, annual reports, photographs, illustrations, and scrapbooks.
    A significant minority of the letters and other documents in the collection are written in Chinese, especially some of his correspondence with family members and with Chinese officials and colleagues. There are also scattered letters in various European languages in the collection, but many of these have English translations attached.
    The Li Papers have been divided into 10 series: Correspondence, University of California, Laboratory Notebooks, Manuscripts (including reprints and illustrations), Grant Applications, Photographs (and news clippings), Thesis, Requests for Help (Restricted), Personnel Files (Restricted), Restricted Materials.
    There does not seem to have been a clear differentiation in the filing system between Li's personal, professional and laboratory correspondence. While the majority of the correspondence and other papers in the collection are by or about Li, there is also correspondence between third parties and third party manuscripts and reprints. Most third-party material was either sent to Li by one of the concerned parties or is by or to a member of his laboratory.

    Correspondence Series

    Only the Correspondence Series (Series I) has been fully processed and is described at the folder level, the rest of the materials have been roughly orgainized into series and have box-level description.
    The Correspondence Series is the largest series in the collection (18 cartons) iand is divided into four major subseries: general correspondence, subject correspondence, award correspondence, and travel correspondence. The General Correspondencesubseries contains the bulk of the material and covers a wide variety of topics. The Subject Correspondence subseries is made up of several short runs of correspondence on variety of topics including the b-MSH controversy, the Endocrine Dinner Club, editorial files for the book, Hormonal Proteins and Peptides, which Li edited, and letters seeking employment with the lab, Lasker Foundation and Hormone Research Foundation Correspondence. The Awards Correspondencesubseries documents Li's receipt of several awards and his later service on the prize committees for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Amory Award and the Lasker Foundation's Lasker Award. The Travel Correspondencesubseries includes travel reports of varying depth, correspondence from and about trips, conference announcements and expense reports. Some folders contain detailed correspondence and planning materials for conferences or symposia. The Awards and Travel sub-series have not been fully processed. Original Photographsfound within the Correspondence Series have been replaced with photocopies. The original photographs have been added to the Series VI: Photographs/Clippings.
    The Correspondence Series as a whole documents Li's active involvement with a cross-section of the scientific community, and includes personal as well as strictly business letters. Li's correspondents ran the gamut from Nobel Prize winners such as Christian Anifsen, Stanford Moore, Frederick Sanger, William Stein, Arne Tiselius, and Vincent du Vigneud to other significant members of the scientific community and students and former students, including Sidney and Seymor Farber, Ardis Lostroh, Max Geffen, S.L. Chien, and Dwight Ingles. He also corresponded with prominent members of the Chinese American community such as the architect I.M. Pei, and there are scattered letters from entertainment figures such as Danny Kaye and Eddy Arnold.
    Scientific and professional issues predominate, such as the letter from Laurence Kinsell explaining his reasons for leaving UC and discussions of research, the work of the National Pituitary Agency in trying to arrange for glands from animal and human sources to provide enough material for both clinical and research uses; and evaluations of journal articles and individuals. However more personal topics, including wedding and birth announcements, discussions of family and work life are also appear.
    Li carried on extensive correspondence with scientists around the world, having major contacts in Europe and South America. He corresponded regularly with researchers and doctors in Sweden, England, France, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Italy, Germany, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Japan, Australia, Israel, Iraq, Canada, Mexico and China. This international correspondence occasionally includes insider opinions on major political and social events, such as a letter from Hector R. Croxatto of the Universidad Catolica de Chile (Dec. 20, 1973) describing his feelings about the overthrow of Salvador Allende.
    The Chinese correspondence documents his role in promoting science education in Hong Kong and Taiwan, including letters to and from officials at the Academia Sinica (Taiwan) and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, covering hiring decisions, placement of students, curriculum issues and more. This correspondence can be found both under the names of the Institutions and in "China --miscellaneous" folders, as well as under the names of specific individuals such as: Shih-Liang Chien, Tung-bin Lo, Choh-Ming Li (CHL's brother), Ma Lin, and others.
    Major correspondents include: Howard Bern , Yehudith Birk --Israel, Michel Chretien --France, Peter Condliffe, Hector Croxatto --Chile, Thomas L. Dao, Konrad Dobriner, Ralph I. Dorfman, Enrique Egana --Chile, Escamilla, Roberto, Evans, Herbert, Alice Fordyce [See Also --correspondence in Lasker Foundation and Hormone Research Foundation sub-sub Series], Peter Forsham, William Ganong, Maxwell Geffen, David W. Golde, Laszlo Graf --Hungary, Antonietta and Renzo Grattarola --Italy, George P. Hess, Charles Huggins [Li's nomination of Huggins for Nobel prize is filed under Huggins, Charles --Nomination for the Nobel Prize 1957], Dwight J. Ingle [See also Upjohn Co.], Marion Jutisz --France, Hiroshi Kawauchi --Japan, John H. Lawrence, Rolf Luft --Stockholm, Sweden, Johannes Meienhofer, N. Raghu Moudgal --India, Hans Neurath, Willem Oelofson--South Africa, Kai O. Pedersen --Uppsala, Sweden, Brian T. Pickering --England, John G. Pierce, Gregory Pincus, Jerker Porath --Uppsala, Sweden, William O. Reinhardt, T. S. Anantha Samy, Andrew Schally, Hans Selye --Montreal, Canada.
    Major companies and organizations represented in the correspondence include Armour & Company, Eli Lilly & Company, Upjohn Co., Merck and Co., CIBA Foundation, Guggenheim Foundation, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Cancer Society, American Chemical Society, Endocrine Society, National Academy of Science, National Institutes of Health, National Pituitary Bank, National Research Council, New York Academy of Arts. Letters from the same person may appear in both the company/ organization files and under their own name.
    There are also three files of correspondence from his stint as editor of the International Journal of Peptide and Protein Research, (1972-87); and files from the Endocrine Dinner Club which he organized and ran from 1952-63.
    Family correspondence is also found in this collection. Li's correspondence with wife and children appear in the Travel Correspondence sub-series, as well as under Li Family Correspondence among the General correspondence sub-series, though most of that folder contains correspondence with siblings. Li's brothers Choh Ming and Choh Luh, both have several correspondence files in the General correspondence sub-series. Of special interest are Choh Ming Li's 1946 CV, and a 1972 article on Acupuncture which refers to Choh Luh Li.

    Other Series

    Li's research is documented not only by his correspondence but also in the unprocessed, two carton Laboratory Notebooks Series (Series III) and the extensive unprocessed Manuscripts Series which appears to contain drafts, reprints, illustrations and data for all or most of Li's and or the labs papers, including unpublished papers. Also of interest are the Grant Application files (Series V) and the carton containing the Thesis (Series VII) of several of Li's colleagues and advisees. Series II: University of California contains material relating to Li's responsibilities as Director of the Hormone Research Lab and as a member of the faculty at the University of California. There is also a photograph and clipping file (Series VI) which contains a variety of photographs of Li and co-workkers, a super-8 film of the Hormone Research Lab and a clippings on Li from the 1940s-1960s. Series VIII, XI & X are restricted for reasons of confidentiality and privacy. Materials in these files will be opened to the public as restrictions expire. Series VIII contains laboratory personnel records. Series XI consists of Help Requests from the public asking about the availability of the hormones that Li had helped to isolate or synthesize, or offering themselves as research subjects. Series X contains miscellaneous restricted files.