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The Dentist Who Changed World History

Papers of Dr. Maurice William donated to the Center for Chinese Studies

The extravagant headline "The Dentist Who Changed World History" is taken from the title of an article that appeared in Harper's Magazine, in December, 1943. The dentist referred to was Maurice William (1881-1973), who practiced in New York and who, if he didn't change world history, at least influenced the course of events in China. 

In 1924, Sun Yat-sen, often called "the father of his country" for his leading role in the Chinese republican revolution of 1911 that overthrew China's two-thousand-year-old imperial system, was delivering a series of lectures on his political philosophy, the Three Principles of the People. Once a week, like clockwork, for twelve weeks Sun expounded on his philosophy. But when it came time for the thirteenth lecture, Sun stopped, and did not resume for more than a month. Apparently he had come across a book, The Social Interpretation of History, by an American, Maurice William, that caused him to rethink certain critical issues.

Before that time, Sun, like many other reform-minded Chinese intellectuals of the day, was heavily influenced by Marxism. Moreover, the Nationalist Party, which Sun headed, was deeply indebted to the Comintern (Communist International) for "guidance." But when Sun resumed his lectures, he spoke not in terms that were Marxist or vaguely Communist, but rather in terms of "Livelihood" that were clearly influenced by William's book. Writing around 1930, Harley Farnsworth MacNair, professor of history at the University of Chicago and a noted China scholar of the time, declared:
"In paragraph after paragraph, Dr. Sun either quoted, almost word for word, or paraphrased, the arguments which he had found in the Social Interpretation of History. He now repudiated several of his own earlier theories, substituting therefor the system of thought which he had recently discovered in Dr. William's work."

To distill William's critique of Marxism, one might say that while Marx, writing in the days of the Industrial Revolution, had made production the centerpiece of his theory and had cast the industrial proletariat in the leading role of revolutionizing modern society, William turned the argument in exactly the opposite direction by identifying the consumer as the motive force of history. The appeal of William's simple but prescient notion for a Chinese reformer like Sun is obvious: while the Chinese industrial working class early in the twentieth century was miniscule, each and every Chinese, in their hundreds of millions, was a consumer.

Maurice William: From Newsboy, to Dentist, to Social Critic

Born in Kharkov, Russia, William immigrated with his family to the United States at the age of eight. The immigration officer on Ellis Island evidently had difficulty understanding the family's name -- Ilyn -- which he rendered as "William." Hence Maurice got a new last name.

In New York, Maurice attended P.S. 5, and after school he sold newspapers. A few months before his graduation, his family decided he was old enough to work full time. He was placed in a dairy shop, where he worked twelve hours a day. After about a year, he moved on, to work in a printing plant, and then as a messenger and clerk, and still later as a guard. As William's biographer says, Maurice learned about the proletariat at first hand.

At the same time, William was deeply involved in the socialist movement. He wanted to remake society, but also get ahead himself. To this end he studied law part time, but gave that up when he heard Meyer London, New York city's first and only socialist congressman, denounce lawyers as "parasites." (London, by the way, was himself a lawyer.) Casting about for a career, William was advised: "Become a dentist, comrade. Under the most perfect system of society, there will still be rotten teeth."

Following that faultless argument, William worked for several years, and saved money, and then put himself through dental school. In 1907 he received his degree of doctor of dental surgery, got his license, and, as was usual for neophyte, penniless dentists in New York, began to work at one of the city's many "dental parlors" -- places that marketed dentistry on a mass scale. William soon learned that the emphasis in these "parlors" was more on marketing and less on dentistry: the "care" was shoddy at best. Later, when William had his own independent practice, he was instrumental in getting New York to adopt legislation guaranteeing ethical standards in dentistry, and together with several colleagues, he established one of New York's first free dental clinics.

It was William's experience with the exploitation of working class New Yorkers, and his disillusionment with World War I, that led him to reassess Marxism and to self-publish The Social Interpretation of History in 1920.

From Social Critic to Social Activist

By the early 1930s Sun Yat-sen was dead (he died in 1925) and with the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe and aggressive imperialism in Japan, the world was slipping into the crisis that would culminate in the Second World War.

In response to Japanese aggression against China, marked by, among other things, the seizure of Manchuria in 1931, an attack on Shanghai in 1932, and other incursions and depredations that led up to a full-scale invasion in 1937, many Americans organized to aid China. Maurice William became a dedicated organizer and fundraiser. Most prominently, he was an officer in the American Bureau of Medical Aid to China (established in 1937) and chairman of the fundraising committee of the United Council for Civilian Relief in China, the largest and most important organization of its type. Among the members of the national committee of the United Council were such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Herbert Hoover, and Henry Luce (publisher of Time magazine).

The Papers of Maurice William

Albert Einstein crops up in the life of Maurice William in 1934. In that year, Einstein and William began to correspond on the question of China as a possible home for German Jewish refugees from Hitler. This correspondence, along with many other papers of Maurice William, is now in the possession of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, thanks to Susan Heflinger, granddaughter of William, who has generously donated the papers to the Center.

Other correspondence of interest and significance includes a number of letters from Syngman Rhee, the first president of the Republic of Korea. The first letter in the files is dated February 6, 1942, when Rhee was in exile in the United States, and the last April 25, 1960, two days before Rhee resigned as president in the face of huge student demonstrations.

The files also contain many miscellaneous papers that are, so to speak, fragments of a life. For instance, there is a photograph (reproduced here),  taken at the Warner Brothers Studio in 1943, of Dr. William (left) shaking hands with Harry Warner, president of Warner Brothers. Looking on is a Chinese gentleman, identified on the back of another photograph as "Dr. Kin Wei Shaw, movie pic producer." Is this Dr. Shaw related to the Shaw brothers who later became famous for their gongfu (kungfu) movies produced in Hong Kong? The documents do not say.

Maurice William's papers will be placed in the Special Collections of the UCLA library.



(Partial) Bibliography on Maurice William


"Anniversary of an Idea" (1949). New York Times (Aug. 3): 22. Editorial.

"Greatest Living Influence on China Is New York Dentist" (1942). Chickasha, OK Express (Mar. 8).

Kirkpatrick, John (1942). A profile in New Yorker.

"Man Who Made China Leader Anti-Red Visits" (1950). Hollywood, CA Citizen-News (Oct. 13).

Mortiz, Paul W. (1945). "American Book that Remade China." Christian Science Monitor (Nov 17): 7.

"Obscure New York Dentist Caused a War in China Without Leaving His Office" (1942). Evansville, IN Press (Mar. 17).

"Orient's Rescue from Reds Key to Peace, Author Says" (1950). Los Angeles Times (Oct. 13).

Roberts, Katharine (1939). "The Thought Heard 'Round the World." American Mercury.

Shotwell, James T. (1932). "Sun Yat-sen and Maurice William." Political Science Quarterly vol. xlvii, no. 1 (Mar.).

Watt, John R. (1987). A Friend in Deed: ABMAC and the Republic of China, 1937-1942. New York: ABMAC Press. Brief mention, pp. 1-9.

Wick, James L. (1959). "A Chinese Student Mailed a Book; It Saved China from Communism for 25 Years." Human Events (Oct. 14).

---(1961). Human Events vol. xvii, no. 4, section 5 (Nov 13): 743-45.

Zolotow, Maurice (1943). "The Dentist Who Changed World History." Harper's Magazine (Dec.).

---(1948). Maurice William and Sun Yat-sen. London: R. Hale.

Published: 12/20/2002 12:00:00 AM

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