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From Biche to Dublin

Dr Theodosius Poon-King’s intellectual journey led to pioneering medical research, including a warning study 50 years ago about our current diabetes epidemic.
Sunday, December 29, 2013
Dr Theodosius Poon-King

Unexpected events can utterly change the direction of one’s life. Dr Theodosius Ming Poon-King, born in Biche to a Chinese father and a Trinidadian mother, experienced this truth as a boy when his father suddenly passed away. The eminent doctor and pioneer of medical research in T&T recently received an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies (UWI) for his landmark research contributions. In a candid interview with the Sunday Guardian, he mused: “If it wasn’t for my father dying, I would probably still be selling in the shop in Biche.” The loss of his father forced his mother to close the family business—a small shop—and relocate from Biche to Arouca. Poon-King and his two brothers had to grow up a little faster, in uncertain colonial times when education was often too expensive for most people to access.


But through hard work, a keen mind, and the help of caring mentors, the young Poon-King applied himself to excel at school, win scholarships, and educate himself in Ireland to become a pioneering medical researcher on his return to T&T. His research would eventually achieve important insights into diabetes, rheumatic fever, acute nephritis, and links between scorpion stings and coronary heart disease. He helped discover previously unknown streptococci and won awards for his contributions to medicine, including the 1975 Chaconia Gold Medal and a 1995 award for distinguished medical research from the Commonwealth Caribbean Medical Research Council. He’s also earned two doctorates: one from the National University of Ireland (1972) and the more recent one from UWI (2013). Dr Poon-King’s natural courtesy and unpretentious manner reminds you that for him, it’s the medicine that matters, not the awards. His passion for scientific investigation has propelled him far from the space where, as a little boy at the Canadian Mission School in rural Biche, he once struggled to learn the alphabet. 


Childhood in Biche
Poon-King traces his family roots from relatives he affectionately calls the “bow-tie Poon-Tings” from China—his Chinese father, uncles and grandfather all would wear formal bow ties and suits, which are evident  in an old but treasured black and white family photo. It was his Uncle Jacob Poon Lam, he says, who originally brought his father to Trinidad from China in 1917. Poon-King’s father, Reginald, and his mother, Ena ran a small family shop in Biche, where Poon-King was born in 1928. “My childhood memories of Biche are very happy,” says the 85-year-old doctor. “My father’s shop was an ordinary Chinese shop, selling food, dry goods and rum. We also had a cocoa store. We used to buy cocoa from the villagers around, from small cocoa estates, and put the cocoa in the sun to dry in a cocoa shed. And then in the evening, I remember a few villagers used to come and dance the cocoa. They used to throw oil on it and dance on it to shine it up, to get a better price. And they would sing lavways [from the Trini patois expression “le vral”—“the truth”—a form of old-time calypso] when they were dancing. “Every two weeks my father would hire a truck to take all the cocoa to town, and once or twice I went on a trip with him. He always dressed up with tie and felt hat, and I remembered going with him to Port-of-Spain in the morning.
“My father died when I was seven, in November 1935,” states Poon-King.  “He went out to Port-of-Spain to buy goods for the shop one day, and he got sick. He got sick in Port-of-Spain and died within two weeks in Arouca. Arouca was where my mother was born and grew up. So we sold the shop and we moved to Arouca on November 6, 1935.”



The education challenge
“To go to secondary school in those days was a big thing,” comments Poon-King. “You had to pay $16 a term, which was a lot of money in those days. A schoolmaster’s salary was $60 a month,” he recalls. In Arouca Boys’ RC school, Poon-King got the chance to sit the Government Exhibition exam—which could have paid for his secondary schooling. “But I came 54th. So then I went to St Mary’s and wrote the St Mary’s College Exhibition; and I got one of the four [Exhibition scholarships]. That’s why I went to St Mary’s College.” At St Mary’s, his mentor was Father Graf, a tall, stern, inspiring German priest who cared deeply about educating his students to high standards. Poon-King credits Father Graf with teaching him how to study; and how to think critically.


Poon-King won a Trinidad Open Scholarship in Classics in 1946—one of only three island scholarships that paid for tertiary education abroad. The young man, undecided, was thinking of studying law or economics. “But Father Graf said to me: 'You are going to make a good doctor. We are going to get you into Dublin to study medicine.' And that’s how I studied medicine,” laughs Poon-King. With not a single science subject (he’d studied Greek, Latin, French and History), Poon-King had to learn Physics, Chemistry, Botany and Zoology from scratch in nine months at pre-med in University College, Dublin. He went on to medical school, graduating in 1953 with first class honours. He earned a BSc in Pathology and Physiology at the National University of Ireland in 1955. His career since then has included work at the University College Hospital in Jamaica, a year at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, postgraduate studies in endocrinology in Ireland and England, and decades of important disease research at San Fernando General Hospital in Trinidad.


Research for real-world problems
Dr Poon-King says his research interests have always been a response to real world problems. For example, many cane cutters in the South had suffered from scorpion stings. He studied this, and he was the first to discover a link between scorpion stings and heart disease (myocarditis). In 1960, another problem caught his attention: the high rate of diabetes. He met Sir Harold Himsworth, the distinguished UK clinical scientist who classified Type I and II diabetes, in Barbados in 1960. This led to a research grant from England to study diabetes in Trinidad. “We found it was not a high fat diet in Trinidad; it was a high refined carbohydrate diet—roti and sugar and so on—plus obesity and family history, that caused a high incidence of diabetes in Indians—as much as 17 per cent of Indians at the age of 55-60 had diabetes, which is a lot,” says Poon-King.  The study foreshadowed T&T’s current diabetes epidemic, which now affects Afro as well as Indo-Trinis, and which is made worse by continued unhealthy eating and poor exercise habits. A 2011 study found diabetes to be the second leading cause of death in T&T, and the leading cause of adult blindness. 

Dr Poon-King’s research has also included contributions to cardiology, streptococcal disease, and, with Dr Edward Addo, paraquat poisoning treatments—to reduce deaths from the weedicide so widely used to commit suicide. Poon-King helped establish the Streptococcal Disease Unit in 1966 at San Fernando General Hospital. He discovered a new streptococcus—called Strep M55—as the cause of the nephritis epidemics of the mid-60s and 70s; and subsequently his team discovered three new streptococci for kidney disease. He traced the source of typhoid fever in the outbreaks of 1967 and 69; and helped control poliomyelitis in 1971. A lifetime of hard work entitles Dr Poon-King to enjoy his retirement these days. Yet he still finds the energy to see patients and practice medicine. Dr Poon-King says his biggest achievement is his own family: “The happiest moments of my life are really when I got married and when the children were born.” Then he shares a very early memory from 1932, when he was just four years old: “I remember walking to the cocoa estate with my father. Down there, I would catch fishes with my father. I remember seeing the crystal clear water. He’d have a bottle, and he’d put oatmeal in the bottle and the sardines would come in...and the squirrels would be running up the trees into the cocoa pods to eat…these are happy images I still have.” Poon-King’s accomplishments since those carefree cocoa days would have surely made his father proud. 


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