The members of the Harvard Medical School Class of ’08 were exceedingly ambitious — even by Harvard standards. Not content merely to graduate from America’s top med school, a small group of them set out to found an entirely new campus of their alma mater abroad. As they looked out across a world knit together by instant communications and intercontinental travel whose center of gravity was shifting to the rising Pacific Rim, there could be only one choice: Shanghai. China’s financial hub and international gateway seemed destined to blossom into the leading global city of the new century. The get-rich-quick schemer’s paradise that had grabbed the world’s attention as an Asian El Dorado now had its sights set on becoming a cultured and cosmopolitan Paris of the East.
The year was 1909, and it took more than three weeks by ship for the Harvard doctors to cross the Pacific and make it to Shanghai. But already the city they encountered, with its Scottish opium traders, Jewish real estate magnates, Sikh police officers, Cantonese merchant princes, and pidgin-English lingua franca, was the most open metropolis the world had ever seen. Neither passport nor visa was required for entry. An introduction to the city authored in the 1920s by an American expat gushed about its worldliness: “When a traveller arrives in Shanghai to-day he is struck by the fact that to all intents and purposes he might be in a large European city [on account of the] tall buildings, the well paved streets, the large hotels and clubs, the parks and bridges, the stream of automobiles, the trams and buses, the numerous foreign shops, and, at night, the brilliant electric lighting — all are things he is accustomed to.”
But for all that, this Shanghai was a place of danger as well as opportunity: The rebellious political life it cultivated would topple China’s emperors just months after the young doctors’ arrival. Their own venture collapsed just a few years after its launch.