K. K. Chen

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Ko Kuei Chen (1898–1988) was a scientist who headed up pharmacological research at Eli Lilly and Company for 34 years. He is known for his work with ephedrine, cyanide poisoning therapy, and toad venom steroids. Tops among his many awards and recognitions is the prestigious Remington Honor Medal for excellence in pharmacy in 1965.


Chen was born in a small village near Shanghai in 1898. After studying in Peking, he arrived in the United States in 1918 for his higher education, earning a BS in 1920 and a PhD in 1923 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1923 he returned to China to work with CF Schmidt at Peking Union Medical College studying the effects of ephedrine. Upon finishing this appointment, he returned to the States to complete his studies with an MD from Johns Hopkins University in 1927. He continued working at Johns Hopkins for a couple of years before accepting an offer in 1929 from Eli Lilly and Company to be the Director of Pharmacological Research. He held this position until his retirement in 1963.[1] During this time, he also accepted a part-time faculty appointment from Indiana University in 1937. Upon leaving Eli Lilly, he became full-time faculty and taught until 1968.[2]


K. K. Chen was mostly known for bringing ephedrine to the western world. He developed his own isolation procedure from the Chinese herb Ma Huang (ephedra sinica). Its medicinal value was long known in China as a remedy for asthma. Further research showed its value in treating hay fever and whooping cough. Other studies that may be credited to him include the successful treatment of cyanide poisoning with nitrite-thiosulfate therapy, structure-activity relationship of over 400 cardiac glycosides and toad venom steroids, heptatotoxic action of Senecio alkaloids, and synthetic analgesic drugs of the methadone series.[3]

Personal life[edit]

Education was always an important factor in his life, learning the teachings of Confucius at a young age. He furthered his English with the debate team while at the University of Wisconsin and played the tuba with the ROTC. He graduated there in 1920 with Phi Beta Kappa honors and finished his PhD in 1923. In order to help his ailing mother, he returned to China, continued his research, and taught classes at Peking Union Medical College. There he met Amy Ling, his future wife. They courted for several years and got married in 1929 after returning to the states.[4] Upon Chen's hiring at Eli Lilly and Company, they settled down in Indianapolis, IN. Amy was a noted scientist herself and co-authored over 150 articles with her husband. Chen also had a keen interest in Chinese art and helped Eli Lilly amass a substantial collection which was eventually donated to the Indianapolis Museum of Art. His favorite sport was baseball. After his retirement in 1968, they moved to San Francisco until his death in 1988. He currently rests next to Amy in Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, MO.



  1. ^ EJ Kahn Jr, All In A Century: The First 100 Years of Eli Lilly and Company, 1975, p104
  2. ^ Annu. Rev. Pharmcol. Toxicol. 1981. 21:1-6
  3. ^ KK Chen, The First Sixty Years 1908-1969, American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, 1969, p67
  4. ^ Sasha Welland, A Thousand Miles of Dreams, 2006, p6

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