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Sixty years on, the last wishes of a prisoner of war are realized

Medicine@Yale, 2008 - Nov Dec


A bequest made in captivity brings $4 million for work on pregnancy, childbirth

The School of Medicine sees its share of charitable contributions, but this year, the school is the recipient of a most unusual gift. While interned in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, Albert S. McKern, M.D., who had earned his master’s degree in engineering at Yale 30 years earlier, willed a portion of his estate to the medical school by writing his bequest on a piece of paper. McKern died shortly thereafter.

A gift of roughly $12 million will be split evenly among three universities McKern attended: the University of Sydney, where he studied theology; Yale; and the University of Edinburgh, where he earned a medical degree. As per McKern’s will, the money will be used to fund research and scholarship centered on reducing pain experienced during pregnancy and childbirth.

Born in 1885 in Australia, McKern came to Yale in September 1911, after deciding that theology was not for him because of his lack of skill as a public speaker. After earning his master’s at Yale and his medical degree at Edinburgh in 1917, he moved to Penang, Malaysia, where he practiced as a physician and surgeon.

In Penang, says McKern’s grandson Bill, “he built up both a successful medical practice and real estate holdings, mainly vacant beachfront lots of about three to five acres each. One was developed into his own house. He also bought a portfolio in the middle of Georgetown, the capital, where the big shopping center is.”

McKern’s good fortune was cut short. With the arrival of World War II, Japan invaded Malaysia and on Dec. 8, 1941, began bombing the island of Penang. In 1942 McKern fled for Singapore aboard the SS Mata Hari, but the ship was captured in Indonesia. McKern spent the next three years as a prisoner of war. Only two months before the war’s end, he died of dysentery in an internment camp in Sumatra.

In his will, which he composed with the help of lawyers held along with him in internment, McKern wrote, “I hereby direct that none of my land or house property be sold until the time specified hereunder in this will.” He stated that his vacant land was to be developed and that other property in Penang was to be renovated and rented out, with the income earned to go mainly to his family. Ten years after the death of his last child, he stipulated, the family’s holdings were to be sold and the money divided three ways between the three universities.

The money was to be used “for the sole and special purpose of establishing medical research scholarships for investigation into the causes, prevention and treatment of mental and physical pain and distress during pregnancy, labour and the puerperium [the period following childbirth].” Yale’s portion of the gift will endow annual grants that will be awarded to those doing the most promising research on these issues.

Charles J. Lockwood, M.D., chair and Anita O’Keefe Young Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, first learned about the gift several years ago at a meeting with Andrew A. Calder, M.D., head of the Division of Reproductive and Developmental Sciences at Edinburgh. Lockwood’s initial reaction was disbelief. “He’d had a few drinks and I’d thought he was exaggerating,” Lockwood recalls. Eventually Calder invited Lockwood to Edinburgh to serve for a week as the Honeyman Gillespie Visiting Professor, and the two began a discussion of joint work that could be done to fulfill McKern’s dream.

In Edinburgh, Lockwood had the opportunity to meet with a number of preeminent Ob/Gyn researchers, including Hilary Critchley, M.D., professor of reproductive medicine, and Jane E. Norman, M.D., honorary senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow and frequent collaborator with Calder. “I had a chance to review some of their research. They have a very strong program,” he says, noting work in the areas of prematurity and preeclampsia in particular. “There are a lot of parallels between Edinburgh’s department and Yale’s. It was really a very exciting visit.”

Lockwood will be devising a joint strategy for using the McKern funds during the 2008–2009 academic year. Given McKern’s desire and the needs of the Ob/Gyn field, he sees research on premature birth as a likely area of focus. “Prematurity is the leading cause of infant mortality in the United States, the leading cause of mental retardation, the leading cause of childhood blindness. It costs the U.S. economy around $28 billion a year in terms of health care-related resources. Preterm delivery is a national public health crisis.”

Funds may also support a Yale-Sydney-Edinburgh scholar exchange program and, through the Department of Psychiatry, research on postpartum depression.