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Dr. Robert Hsun-Piao Yuan, ‘the neurosurgeon’s neurosurgeon,’ dies at 99

Dr. Yuan visited Huangshan Mountain in China, as seen in this undated photo.

During Dr. Robert Hsun-Piao Yuan’s long career as a neurosurgeon, a younger colleague once asked why he took on cases for which success seemed beyond reach.

“You must always give patients hope,” he replied.

Buoyed by his Christian faith, and guided by his commitment to healing, Dr. Yuan traveled from boyhood in 1920s China to serving as chief of neurosurgery at three Greater Boston hospitals.

He was 99 when he died Oct. 3 in his Newton Centre home while in hospice care for failing health.

“I have seen in your practice your conviction that it is our privilege to care for the patient. I will try never to forget the truth in that,” wrote Kristine Hansen, a medical colleague, in one of the many tribute letters Dr. Yuan received when he retired in 1997, at 75.


“I have great respect for the Christian faith and spirituality which permeate all your life and lead you along your path,” Hansen added.

Dr. Yuan, who had served as chief of neurosurgery at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Leonard Morse Hospital in Natick; and Framingham Union Hospital, “was called the neurosurgeon’s neurosurgeon by neurosurgeons and neurologists,” said his son, Dr. Robin Yuan, a surgeon who lives in Beverly Hills, Calif.

The geographic distance between his career in Los Angeles and his father’s in Greater Boston, Robin said, was intentional.

“I always thought that I couldn’t live up to his reputation,” he said, “so I went as far away as I could.”

Among the physicians Dr. Robert Yuan mentored, inside and outside of his neurosurgery specialty, was Dr. David Ho, a prominent AIDS researcher who had been Robin’s roommate when both were attending medical school.

“It goes without saying that Dr. Yuan was a perfect role model for a young medical student like myself,” Ho said in a video tribute last year when Dr. Yuan was honored with a Sojourner Award from the Chinese Historical Society of New England.


He was “a giant figure in the Boston neurosurgical and Chinese-American communities,” Ho said.

Dr. Yuan’s family said that he helped launch a Chinese family summer camp in Foxborough in the 1960s, the Chinese Language School in Newton, and the Greater Boston Chinese Cultural Association.

He and his wife, Dr. Grace Chen Yuan, opened their home to many visitors from China in the 1970s after the United States government established normal diplomatic relations with the country, and their family traveled back to visit relatives in the couple’s homeland, once that was possible.

The Yuans hosted “doctors, scientists, government officials, trade groups, college and graduate students, church representatives, and bishops,” their children wrote.

Dr. Yuan also founded the former Chinese American Neurosurgical Society, which during its existence encouraged connections among doctors in the two countries.

He was able to combine detailed work as a surgeon, advocacy on behalf of others from China, and supporting his family, in part because “there was an amazing equilibrium that he had that he carried with him all the time. He would not let things get to him,” said his daughter Fran of Belmont.

Dr. Yuan “had such self-confidence and did not think of obstacles, but rather thought of opportunities,” his daughter Annette of Boulder, Colo., wrote in an e-mail. “He never took his great fortune in life for granted. His favorite saying was ‘all the blessings of this life’ that God had given him.”


In a poem written for their father’s 50th birthday, in 1972, Robin concluded with the verse:

See the proud and skillful surgeon

Extending his steady hand to all.

How does one thank one’s father

for guiding you through the ever-Lighted maze

for being what he is?

Dr. Yuan was born on March 4, 1922, in what is now Ningbo, China. His father was the Rev. Yuan Wen-You and his mother was Shen Wang-Yun, though spellings of their names vary, depending on the translation and dialect.

His mother was a teacher, principal, and school administrator who died when Dr. Yuan was about 1. His father, a Chinese Episcopal minister, teacher, and school administrator, then remarried and had a son with his second wife, Shen Mai-Jung, a teacher, principal, and school administrator.

Dr. Yuan was about 5 when his father died, and he was raised by his stepmother. At the time of his death, he was the last surviving sibling from both marriages.

The youngest of his parents’ eight children, Dr. Yuan was a grandson of Tsae-seng Sing, the first clergyman of Chinese descent to become a bishop in the Anglican Communion. Dr. Yuan attended St. John’s University, a Christian college in Shanghai that was set up by Anglican missionaries.

He graduated in 1947 and continued his medical training in the United States at the University of Pennsylvania and in Parkersburg, W. Va.


While at Penn, he met Dr. Grace Chen, the only woman to graduate in her class at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. They married in 1952, three days after she graduated.

In Greater Boston, she was a research physician at the Harvard School of Public Health, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“Grace is remembered, even to this day, for the great zeal and patriotic spirit she exhibited,” Dr. Yuan said in a Globe interview for his wife’s obituary when she died in 2010. “A woman before her time when opportunities and voices for Chinese women were few, she had urged female students to do great deeds for China and, just as important, to make their thoughts and ideas heard.”

Dr. Yuan began a neurosurgery residency at what was then New England Medical Center Hospital and later became Tufts-New England Medical Center.

He then joined the medical center’s staff and remained with the full-time faculty at Tufts until leaving to begin a private practice, and subsequently to become chief of neurosurgery at Mount Auburn, Leonard Morse, and Framingham Union hospitals.

As a youth, his son Robin would accompany Dr. Yuan to the hospital, which inspired him to pursue medicine.

“Seeing how he treated people in the hospital, from patients to janitors in the hospital, colored my approach to medicine in being very humble and respectful of all the people around you,” Robin said.

Fran said their father “was very understated in some ways, but he had a certain kind of charisma. Everything about him communicated ‘I want to be with you and want to know a little bit about you.’ "


Dr. Yuan embraced his new country, learning to ski and, with his wife, taking their children traveling to see the United States.

“I have such fond memories of family vacations always involving travel,” Annette wrote. “In the early years this meant just camping in New England, but as we grew older and Dad had the finances, we would travel to Canada or Florida or the American West and then Europe. He put a lot of value in travel.”

A service will be announced for Dr. Yuan, who in addition to his three children, leaves five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Dr. Yuan “felt so blessed,” said Annette, who added that in one of their last exchanges, he answered “my question, ‘Dad are you dying,’ because he lost interest in eating. His reply was, ‘I hope so. Annette I had a wonderful life.’ He was satisfied.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.