Studying at M.I.T. During WWII

(Note: Prof. Lee graduated from Tsinghua University in 1940. Tsinghua University was relocated to Kunming in Southern China after Japanese troops started full-scale invasion to China on July 7, 1937. In the summer of 1942, he flow from Kunming to India with the help of the Flying Tigers, and then took a long boat ride to New York City. After completing his master’s and PhD studies in just two and half years, Prof. Lee later became a full professor at M.I.T. and started two companies successfully. This article is from his autobiography From Tsinghua to M.I.T., soon to be published by Boston Bilingual Media and Publishing Inc.)

By Shih-Ying Lee

I arrived in Cambridge in early October 1942 and immediately registered at M.I.T. Since I was rather late to register, there was no space in the dormitories for graduate students. Most of my classmates were foreign students from South America, Turkey, China and other countries. Most American students below age 30 were drafted to fight in WWII.
M.I.T. Chinese Students Club, 1942. Prof. Lee was in the front row, 2nd from left.

I had to rent a furnished room in an apartment at 282 Massachusetts Avenue, near the school. The rental was about $6.00 per month. I ate mostly in the student dining hall in Walker Memorial, which served meals costing less the 50 cents. My monthly allowance of $40 was barely enough to cover the most essential expenses, with some funds left over for books and other miscellaneous purchases. Nevertheless, not too long after I arrived in America, I was able to pay back all the debts incurred since I left China. Since the central government of China moved the capital from Nanking to Chunking, inflation had gone out of control. So was the exchange rate of Chinese yuan vs. U.S. dollars in the open market. But the official rate was artificially maintained at a relatively unchanged rate. As a way to help overseas Chinese students, the government allowed each student to receive from their families a certain amount of U.S. dollars, which their family could buy and send to them using Chinese money at the lower official rates. Since I could get by with the scholarship, I utilized that exchange privilege to pay back the money I borrowed to finance my trip to the U.S.A. as well as the $500 I borrowed from my brother, Y.T.

At M.I.T., I majored in structural engineering in the Graduate School’s Civil Engineering Department. I found that the classes were all very small, with only five or six students in some classes. I was told that most of the college-aged American students were drafted into the military—only 4-F’s (physical deficient) and foreign students remained.

The professors I came in contact with the most were Professor J.B. Wilbur, who was the head of the Civil Engineering Department, and Professor Fife who, as I remember, was a very serious person who taught structure theories. I also had Professor Peabody, who taught reinforced concrete, and Professor Charles Norris, who ran the structure laboratory. To my pleasant surprise, I was able to deal with technical English without too much trouble; I did have some problem with conversational English, especially with some slang words when I first heard them.

The course work was not too hard either, and the lectures were quite easy to follow, so was the homework. All this seemed to indicate that the scholastic standard of Tsinghua was on par with M.I.T. My earlier hard work preparing for the scholarship examination also paid off. By doing that, I seemed to understand the subject matter much better. Time went fast; I received my Master’s degree in two semesters in 1943. Since that was my first degree from the school, I was considered as M.I.T. class of 1943.

Shortly after I register into M.I.T., I was required to have a complete physical examination. The chest X-ray revealed that there were shadows in my lung! I was told that was tuberculosis (TB). The attending physician was Dr. Albert England (many years later we got to know him and Mrs. Pricilla England much better, after we moved to Lincoln, Massachusetts, and became one of his neighbors). He told me that there was a recently developed antibiotic drug (Streptomycin, discovered in 1943), and that I should give it a try. A few months later, I went back to see him again, and I was told that the infected area had been “arrested.” This meant that the shadow in the lung still remained there, but that the TB bacteria were no longer active. I felt so lucky that the new drug had just been invented in time for me. I recalled that my brother, only a few years early, had a similar disease. He had to go thorough a major operation, had one of his lungs collapse, and he remained in the hospital for many months. More recently, one of my friends, who also had TB, had to stay in the state hospital for over a year before he was released.

While I was at M.I.T., I had another physical problem corrected. I suppose ever since I was born I had the problem of excessive sweating of my palms. The problem would get worse when I was excited. I remembered my exam papers always got wet, and the writing on it would become smudged before I finished with it. I always felt embarrassed whenever someone tried to shake hands with me, or rather with my wet, cold, slimy hand. I mentioned that to Dr. Sealer, who was one of the kindest physicians I ever knew. At the time, he was the Head of the M.I.T. infirmary. He recommended me to a physician at the Massachusetts General Hospital by the name of Dr. Reginald Smithwick. I went to see the doctor at M.G.H. with a dubious mind, thinking he might prescribe some ointment or lotion which I already had tried without any success. He told me he might be able to help me surgically. I asked him what the chance of success was, and I was told better than 90 percent. In the operation room, I was put under completely with the use of a gas mask. When I woke up I found that my right palm was cured of excessive perspiration. I was told that they had cut a certain nerve on the left side of my back which controlled the sweat gland of my right palm. A few months later he operated on the other side of my back to cure the sweating problem of my left palm. I was so happy and grateful with the results of the operation, which cured my problem without any side effect of any kind. I do not remember who paid for the operation. Since I was not charged with anything, it might have been covered by the student medical insurance program which was paid by the State Department scholarship. Years later, I looked up on the internet and found out that it was Dr. Smithwick himself who pioneered the sympathectomy procedure not long before he operated on me.

Other activities at M.I.T.

Besides schoolwork, I found time to use the new swimming pool of M.I.T. quite a bit. I also took the “shore school” in preparing for sailing in the Charles River. The two-week course taught us various techniques for handling a sailboat, and various marine terminologies about sailing. In addition to the shore school, one had to pass a swimming test before one could sign out one of the dinghies in the school’s boathouse. I tried sailing a few times on the Charles, and I found it was very relaxing and enjoyable, especially on a nice and slightly windy day. I also tried rowing once on the Charles in one of the streamlined shells, and I found it very difficult to stabilize the narrow hull, so after that I did not do it again.

Working toward a Doctor’s degree

After I had received my Master’s degree in 1943, the World War was fighting intensely in both Europe and Asia. I could not go back to China even if I wanted to. In the meantime, my scholarship was still good for several more years. So I decided to continue on for my Doctor’s degree. For that program, I decided that structure engineering should be my major subject. For the required minor subject, I chose naval architecture. For the next two years I had to take quite a few graduate courses in both departments and get satisfactory grades in them to qualify as a doctor’s candidate.

To satisfy their three language requirement, I selected German, Russian, and Chinese. The latter became acceptable at M.I.T. only after World War II started, and China suddenly became an important nation. To pass the language test, one need only be able to translate a page of a technical article of that particular language.
Besides course work, there was the thesis requirement. The idea behind the doctoral candidate writing a thesis was to demonstrate his or her ability to perform independent research. My doctoral thesis supervisor was Professor Charles Norris, then a young Assistant Professor in the Civil Engineering Department. He was a very kind and unpretentious person from the state of Washington. He often joked around quite a bit. I considered him one of the nicest people I ever met in the United States.

My thesis title was “A New Electric Strain Gauge and Its Application to Structural Models Subjected to Static Loads.” For my thesis work, I conceived and designed a variable capacitance strain gauge to measure the strains on a structure model. The gauge was not like a conventional one which was permanently glued to a given place. The one I developed was a movable and reusable one which can be attached to different places of a structure model. Thus one gauge is needed to map the strain of a model structure.

Along with the gauge, I also devise an oscillating loading applicator. I tried my scheme on a certain structure model to verify its usefulness by comparing the test result with a theoretical solution. After Professor Norris approved the contents of my thesis, I bought a portable typewriter, trained myself to type, and then started the task of typing in triplicate (with carbon paper) the whole thesis, which fortunately was not a long one. My typing skill improved considerably by the end of the task. I kept that typewriter for years, until the computer and word processor made it obsolete.

I completed my Doctor’s degree in the summer of 1945, the year the Second World War ended. In all, it took me eight semesters in two-and-a-half years to get both my M.S. and Sc.D. degrees from M.I.T.