The life of Ted Tong, PharmD, a professor of pharmacy practice, pharmacology and toxicology at the R. Ken Coit College of Pharmacy, offers a colorful canvas stretched across U.S. history in the narrative he shares of Asian American contributions to the nation, the West, Tucson and the University of Arizona Health Sciences.
Dr. Tong relishes the story of the transcontinental railroad and the Chinese immigrants who were essential to its completion in the 1860s. They often did the most dangerous jobs, such as placing explosives to clear tunnels or anchor bridges, many dying in the process. Dr. Tong pointed out that history is the origin of a phrase about low chances that is derogatory to Chinese people. He heard that phrase from a high school basketball coach at tryouts even though he was a good player – he made the team and won a varsity letter. Lesson: Don’t give up, stay focused.
He hopes to build less dangerous bridges in the community by promoting Heritage Healing Practice lectures for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month at the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center. The lectures offer historical and contemporary perspectives on topics including Chinese herbalism and traditional Chinese medicine.
Connecting through time
Connecting across cultures and generations is at the core of Dr. Tong’s service to the university community. That history includes serving as associate dean for academic affairs for nearly 30 years and founding PharmCamp, a summer camp for middle schoolers with an emphasis on recruiting from underserved communities. PharmCamp was an integral part of the college’s community outreach until the COVID-19 pandemic. It returned last summer on a limited basis and will be held this summer in Tucson in cooperation with Arizona MESA, the local chapter of the national STEM youth outreach program Math Engineering Science Achievement.
Dr. Tong arrived in Tucson in 1982 from the University of California, San Francisco, accepting an appointment as director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, a post he held until 2005. At UCSF, he was an associate professor and head of its poison center after earning a Doctor of Pharmacy degree there in 1969. He holds bachelor’s degrees from USC and Oregon State University and did post-graduate studies in leadership development and environmental management at Harvard University and the University of San Francisco.
His impact reaches nationally as well, having worked on emergency and bioterrorism preparedness committees with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He credits that gig to his longtime friendship with former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, MD, MPH, a laureate professor at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. They met when both were at UCSF. Dr. Tong was one of Dr. Carmona’s references when he was being considered for the surgeon general post.
Supporting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts
Taking the advice of one of his mentors, Dr. Tong “looks beyond himself” to build bridges as an advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion. He worked to form an affiliation between the university and the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center and is a founding member of the UArizona Asian American Faculty, Staff and Alumni Association. The Coit College of Pharmacy's Distinguished Leadership and Service Award is named in his honor, and since 2020, he’s been the namesake for an American Pharmacists Association endowed scholarship.
“It’s where you are, not what you're born into.”
Ted Tong, PharmD
Dr. Tong’s career has been celebrated as well. In 2009, he was presented with the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation Volunteer Service Award for his involvement with Pima County Health Department emergency readiness efforts and the Medical Reserve Corps of Southern Arizona. He is one of the first R. Ken Coit Endowed Professors and has won numerous college, industry and community awards, including as a DEI advocate.
To that end, Dr. Tong also serves on a committee under Francisco Moreno, PhD, the university’s interim vice president and inaugural chief inclusion officer. Dr. Tong takes pride in the contributions of other notable Asian Americans who are no longer here, including Lincoln Chin, PhD, a long-time College of Pharmacy faculty member who died in 2019. Rattling off a list of names from about every Health Sciences college, he looks to younger Asian Americans to continue carrying the torch for change.
“They’re the bridge to future generations of Asian Americans here,” Dr. Tong said.
Long family history of barrier breaking
Dr. Tong’s maternal grandfather came to California as a student scholar in the late 1800s, when strict anti-Chinese immigration laws restricted access. His mother, born above her father’s shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, grew up largely in China but returned to the U.S. because of Japanese expansionism before World War II. It was a big deal that his grandfather owned the shop because that didn’t happen a lot then, Dr. Tong said.
His father was born in China but was placed for adoption by his mother because of poverty. Dr. Tong’s father came to America as an orphan and grew up with his adoptive family in San Diego. Dr. Tong’s parents met and married in San Francisco before his father shipped out to fight in Europe shortly after the D-Day landing in Normandy. As a result, Dr. Tong was 3 years old before he met his father.
“The story here is this: It’s where you are, not what you’re born into. My father didn’t know a lick of English when he came here, and yet, when he met my mother, he taught her how to speak English because she didn’t know it since she came from China, even though she was born here initially.”
Dr. Tong admits – a bit wistfully now – to not being eager to hear his father’s WWII stories when he was a University of Southern California student in the mid-1960s. It was not until later in life that Dr. Tong and his siblings heard their father’s personal stories of being a Chinese American who overcame the adversities immigrants commonly experienced. For Dr. Tong the lesson was clear – take advantage of opportunities in front of you.
With his career at the College of Pharmacy now in its fifth decade, though, he modestly says he’s not sure people at the university are eager for his stories. “There’s just too much stuff. People will go, ‘Sheesh, Ted, come on,’” he said. Still, he’s willing to share. Just ask him.