Quiet Hero
An unassuming researcher embarks on a courageous quest that changes his life forever

Quiet Hero - Photo by Changsheng Li
by Changsheng Li


uring the 1940s, the road through the dilapidated town of Xian, China, was rough and unpaved, dusty in the dry season, muddy when the rains came. But every morning, a small boy with a passion for learning set out from home for the mile-long walk to school. And every morning, along the way, he passed the local hospital. What he saw there haunted his childhood dreams. A line of people, most of them farmers, waited outside, hoping for treatment. Many had walked all night from distant villages. Most were visibly suffering, bowed down with enormous growths and deformities--a parade of mortal afflictions. "Everybody said it was from the soil and water," recalls Changsheng Li, "but nobody really knew."

Two decades later, as Li was finishing his bachelor's degree in geochemistry at China's University of Science and Technology, he began to suspect that explanations for the diseases he had witnessed during his long-ago walks past the hospital might be discovered through the study of biogeochemistry. Digging through existing literature, he found references to a number of endemic diseases specific to a geographic region, including the ones he had seen as a child. Abnormal legs and arms, for example, were attributed to a deficiency of sulphur; huge neck growths were attributed to iodine deficiency.

Suddenly Li knew what he wanted to do. In 13 provinces across China, another tale of human suffering had been unfolding for several decades. People were dying abruptly, dramatically, and no one could figure out why. Named after the county in Heilongjiang Province where the first case was found in the 1940s, Keshan disease resulted in sudden heart failure. As Li pored over documented cases, he noticed the disease occurred only in certain geographic zones, and he had an inkling of how to proceed. "I had a very strong desire to help," says Li.

In 1967, three years after graduating, the young scientist assembled a research team and headed to Heilongjiang. Instead of testing bacteria, as previous research groups had done, Li's team tested the chemistry of the food, soil and water. Their mission was urgent. "Infants were dying in my arms," says Li.

After two years of non-stop research, Li and his team discovered irrefutable evidence that Keshan disease was linked to agriculture practices which were leaching trace elements, especially selenium, from the soil and water. Li and his team developed a biogeochemical model designed to prove this link. Well received by the research community, Li's work stimulated more research, and subsequent studies confirmed the environmental connection to Keshan disease.

But for people in the affected provinces, it was the early work of Li and his team that mattered most. As soon as the initial findings came in, doctors were dispatched to the countryside. The people were given selenium supplements, fields were treated with selenium-based fertilizer and years of agonizing loss came to an end.

Li was a hero—at least to those who knew him. He had made a significant contribution to his country as well as to the field of biogeochemistry. He had also embarked on a lifetime commitment to help humanity through science. "My dream was to do research in biogeochemistry," Li says, "to study the relationship between living forms and their environment by tracking the movement of chemical elements in nature." Li's motivation was simple. He wanted to make a better world.

Little did Li know that his vision would propel him, and sustain him, on a journey that would take him thousands of miles from home, through tremendous political and personal turmoil. It was a journey that would transform him from earnest student to powerful official to courageous protestor to world-famous researcher. Ultimately, it was a journey that would change his life forever.

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