Dr. Yujen Edward “Ted” Hsia, a pioneer in medical genetics at the University of Hawaii who shepherded his patients and students through that challenging field with warmth and grace, has died at age 88.
“Ted had an uncanny ability to praise, scold and teach in one sentence all with a smile on his face,” said Janet Berg, a genetic metabolic nurse who was one of his protegees. “He was passionate about his patients and his colleagues and treated us all as family.”
Hsia suffered a brain bleed and fall Feb. 11 at his residence in Arcadia, where he had moved a few months ago, according to Duncan Hsia, one of his five sons.
“He is definitely the father of genetics in Hawaii,” said Dr. Laurie Seaver, a geneticist and former colleague. “He essentially built the clinical genetics program at Kapiolani (Medical Center). He was as smart as anyone I have ever known.”
Medical genetics involves diagnosing, treating and managing hereditary and metabolic disorders, from birth defects to genetic diseases.
“Each patient that came to him was like a puzzle, and he was trying to put all the pieces together to figure out what was going on with them,” Berg said. “He was never afraid to try something new.”
“It’s body, mind and spirit — he told me that all the time,” she added. “We can do the science all we want, but if the rest isn’t OK, we are not going to get very far.”
Born in Shanghai on Nov. 24, 1931, Hsia was educated in England, earning his undergraduate and medical degrees from Oxford University. He taught genetics at Yale University for a decade before joining the University of Hawaii, where he was a professor of genetics and pediatrics.
“He started and ran the medical genetics program in Hawaii from 1977 to 1998, teaching genetics to all the medical students and also treating and counseling many children and their families,” Duncan Hsia said.
Ted Hsia helped launch Hawaii Community Genetics, a clinical collaboration among Kapiolani Medical Center, the Department of Health and the UH Medical School.
In retirement, Hsia shared his expertise with an eager set of learners often overlooked by society: the inmates at the Women’s Community Correctional Facility.
For 18 years he visited the prison weekly, helping the women understand issues such as the genetic components of disease, from cancer to bipolar disorder, as part of the Total Life Recovery Program.
“He was super dedicated,” said Tammy Turcios, chaplain and director of that program. “Even up to the last week before he passed away, he was trucking on up that hill.”
“He taught them about what drugs do to their brain, about any kind of disease,” she said. “He always came prepared with a lesson that captivated the women. They just loved his class.”
His son Duncan said his personality as well as his intelligence set him apart: “He was always smiling and so friendly and generous.”
As word spread of his death, former patients weighed in with social media posts. “I’m alive because of him,” wrote Jason Taylan.
Hsia’s faith anchored his life. He and his late wife, Juliet, a pioneering genetics counselor herself, joined Calvary-by-the-Sea Lutheran Church when they arrived in Honolulu. He gave “keiki talks” at services, calling children to the front of the sanctuary and offering lessons for them and the congregation.
A baritone, Hsia was a devoted member of the church choir, and he also performed with the Honolulu Symphony Choir.
“Everybody just loves his smile,” said Gordon Hsia, his youngest son. “The main reason why my father was smiling was that he always had faith with God in his heart. … The balance of being a geneticist and having such a strong faith in the Lord is just amazing.”
Seaver, who visited Hsia a few weeks ago from her home in Grand Rapids, Mich., said he was proud to tell her that his former students were now taking care of him as doctors.
His survivors include sons Martin, Calvin, Franklin, Duncan and Gordon; and 12 grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held Sunday at 4 p.m. at Calvary-by-the-Sea Lutheran Church. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Ted & Juliet Hsia Foundation, 1177 Queen St. No. 2002, Honolulu 96814.