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Pien-Chien ‘PC’ Huang, a molecular biologist who taught at Johns Hopkins for 54 years, dies

Dr. Pien-Chien "PC" Huang did fundamental work in biochemistry.
Dr. Pien-Chien "PC" Huang did fundamental work in biochemistry.

As a child, Suber S. Huang sought to challenge his father in chess. But before the two began a game in their home in the Guilford area of Baltimore, Pien-Chien “PC” Huang offered his son an advantage: If his son encountered an untenable situation, he could turn the chessboard around and play from his father’s more favorable position, and he could do this a total of three times.

“I would blunder into a trap, and I would try to figure a way out, and I couldn’t,” Suber Huang recalled, adding that his father made the same offer to his grandchildren. “So he allowed me to flip the board around, and I was now playing from his strong position. And he would show how there was a way out. So inevitably, I would get reversed again, and he would say, ‘You can turn it around two more times if you want to.’ It was always a struggle to find a way out. … But in the end, he would kick our ass most of the time.”

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Dr. Huang (pronounced Wong), a molecular biologist who taught at the Johns Hopkins University for 54 years, died Aug. 3 at his home of complications from a stroke. He had celebrated his 89th birthday on July 13.

Dr. Huang’s death elicited a response on social media from fellow faculty members, peers, and former and current students who knew him.

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Ashani* T. Weeraratna, who began in July 2019 serving as the E.V. McCollum Chair of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said she knew Dr. Huang for slightly less than a year and pointed out that at age 49, she had lived fewer years than Dr. Huang had taught.

“The truth is that even if I had known him for 100 years, I’m not sure I could fully encapsulate his legacy,” Dr. Weeraratna said. “When I posted about his passing on social media, I was flooded with messages from all over the world saying what impact he had on their lives, how they had been struggling and he took the time to walk them through their classes. It’s just amazing. His impact in terms of his science, he made some really fundamental biochemical discoveries throughout his career. But I think above all, the mentorship that he gave to so many will be his lasting legacy.”

Dr. Huang was the second of seven children born and raised in Shanghai, China. He was born during a typhoon, emerging while floating in a metal tub before reaching a local hospital.

His son said his father as a child would purchase a ticket on a bus or train, ride it until the last stop and then return. “Through that, he was able to see so much of the larger world out there, just looking out the window,” said his son, a doctor who is founder and CEO of the Retina Center of Ohio.

In 1948, Dr. Huang and his grandfather left China for southern Taiwan. He became a member of the first admitted class at what is today the National Taiwan University that had to pass exams to enroll.

When a guest lecturer from what is now Virginia Tech University visited National Taiwan University to deliver a speech on general health and biology, Dr. Huang — as president of a student-run health club — transcribed his speech into English and gave it to the lecturer as a gift. The lecturer was so impressed that he offered Dr. Huang a three-year scholarship to pursue a master’s degree at Virginia Tech, with a promise to add two more years for a doctorate if he performed well during the first three years.

“At that point, he said, ‘That would be really wonderful, but I have a problem,’ ” his son said. “The lecturer said, ‘Well, what’s your problem?’ He said, ‘Well, I have a girlfriend.’ The lecturer asked, ‘How are her grades?’ He said, ‘They’re better than mine.’

So the lecturer said, ‘I’ll give her a five-year scholarship, too.’ ”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in genetics in 1952, Dr. Huang and his girlfriend, Ru-Chih Chow, immigrated to Blacksburg, Virginia. On June 10, 1956, when they earned their master’s degrees in biochemistry, the two wed afterward at the university president’s house.

After graduating from Ohio State University in 1960 with a doctorate in biochemistry and moving with his wife to complete a post-doctoral fellowship at the California Institute of Technology, Dr. Huang moved to Baltimore, and he and his wife joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins in 1965. He became a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health in 1976 and was awarded a second professorship in the Department of Biophysics in the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

A significant portion of Dr. Huang’s career was spent studying metallothionein proteins, which bind transition metals in the body and play a role in protection against metal toxicity and oxidative stress. Later, Dr. Huang sought to demonstrate to students how molecular science can impact every future human endeavor.

For his work, Dr. Huang was recognized by many academic institutions. He was inducted into the Academica Sinica, the Chinese National Academy of Sciences, in 1986. During 1992-1995, he worked at the National Tsing Hua University’s Taiwan College of Life Sciences, serving as director of the Institute of Biomedical Sciences, chairman of the Department of Life Sciences, and then the first dean of the College of Life Sciences.

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Dr. Huang was a medical research council fellow for two-time Nobel laureate Fred Sanger at the University of Cambridge in England in 1970-1972. And in 2015, he received the first PC Huang Medal of Distinguished Service from Johns Hopkins.

Dr. Huang also had a light touch outside of the classroom, which proved extremely helpful for Dr. Weeraratna in her first meeting with the Johns Hopkins faculty.

“I was understandably extremely nervous,” she recalled. “But after that first meeting, he came up to me and said, ‘You must have done a lot of this because you’re really good at it.’ It was just a simple thing to say. It’s not something I expected. No one ever compliments you on running a meeting. He must have sensed that I was a little bit nervous, and he went out of his way to find me and just reassure me that it went OK. It was just a kind thing to do, to have that awareness and then act on it.”

Funeral services for Dr. Huang were private. A memorial service at Johns Hopkins is being planned.

In addition to his wife, a biology professor at Johns Hopkins and a member of Academica Sinica, and son, Dr. Huang is survived by a daughter, Suzanne Huang Rexing of Baltimore, three brothers, Bing-Jing Huang of Hong Kong, Peter Bing-Cong Huang of Elk Grove, California, and Percy Ping-Shing Huang of Fairfax, Virginia; one sister, Elsa Yuen-Mee Cheng of Hong Kong; and three grandchildren.

* This article has been updated. A previous version misspelled Ashani T. Weeraratna’s name.

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