Frederick Pei Li, MD passed away in Brookline on June 12, 2015. Born in Canton, China in 1940, he was the son of Han Hun Li and Chu Fang Wu. His father, General Li, fought the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese war. His mother Chu Fang Wu, organized schools and orphanages for thousands of war widows and children. They emigrated to the US when Fred was 7 and opened a Chinese restaurant to support the family, much to the chagrin of their friends and colleagues who said they would “lose face” by opening a business. To the Li family’s credit, the China Garden Restaurant in White Plains NY became a huge success. All 5 children helped out but not one took over the business!!
When Fred was young, his father suffered from a serious head injury and his mother told him to leave high school at age 16 and enroll in college. Graduating from NYU, he then went to the University of Rochester Medical School. He was known for carrying his doctor’s black bag to parties where he’d take out soy sauce, black vinegar, Chinese wine, and cook dinner for friends. After his third year, he took a year to travel around the world, studying cholera and chlamydia trachomatis epidemics, discovering that good public health policies could cure more patients and have more influence than any one single individual physician.
After graduation, he looked for the most challenging public health problem, and eventually he found it in the War on Cancer. Joining the National Cancer Institute, he met Robert Miller and Joseph Fraumeni, two physician scientists among many other brilliant epidemiologists and physicians. He became a commissioned officer of the US Public Health Service, assigned to the Boston Field Station and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the 1970’s.
It was working with Joseph Fraumeni, David Malkin, Steven Friend and Louise Strong that 20 years of observation and deduction led to the understanding and discovery of the Li-Fraumeni syndrome, a familial syndrome where there is a defect in the p53 tumor suppressor gene. Families with this autosomal dominant syndrome may have a risk of multiple cancers as high as 50%. New discoveries, treatment and prevention options for patients with this syndrome continue to evolve.
Fred also found time to be a family man. He was a generous husband; the first year of marriage, on a meager fellow’s salary, he paid the full tuition for his wife Elaine to go to medical school. Together, they raised 3 children, Andrew, Margaret and Irene, who, following in their paternal grandmother’s footsteps, recently opened a food truck and restaurant in Boston, serving Chinese-inspired food. He leaves 3 sisters, Virginia Li of Los Angeles, Angela Li-Scholz of Albany NY, and Tina Li of NYC, two grandchildren Jackson Frederick Li and Kira Elaine Tan and many nieces and nephews throughout the US and the world. He is predeceased by his brother Victor Li, Honolulu, HI.
Published by the Boston Globe, June 14, 2015.