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Dr. George Hatem, a Buffalo native who devoted his medical career to eradicating disease in the People's Re public of China, died Sunday (Oct. 2, 1988) in a Beijing hospital.

Once called the most beloved Amer ican in China, he is widely credited with ridding the world's most populous nation of venereal disease, and he had hoped to eliminate leprosy from the country by the year 2000.

Hatem, 78, who had been diagnosed as having cancer and diabetes, had been hospitalized since Aug. 4. In mainland China he was known as Dr. Ma Hai-teh, meaning "virtue from overseas." During the 1950s, he be came the first foreigner to become a Chinese citizen.

Dr. Steven B. Sample, president of the State University of Buffalo, who presented Hatem an honorary doctor of science degree last year in Beijing, re called the ceremony.

"The presence of many of China's top leaders at that ceremony demon strated the very high esteem in which Dr. Hatem is held in that country," he said. Sample also noted Hatem's accom plishments. "Over the past half-century, he led the fight against dreadful diseases like cholera, venereal disease and leprosy in China and in the process saved the lives of many millions of Chinese," he said.

The son of Lebanese immigrants, Shafick Hatem -- his first name was Americanized to George -- grew up on Seneca Street in Buffalo and Holland Avenue in Lackawanna. He attended Our Lady of Victory School in Lacka wanna. His medical career may have had its roots in an influenza epidemic in 1918, when his entire family was stricken. He recalled later how his family received care from a kindly doctor who made house calls and accepted no payment. "The medical profession," Hatem once said, "is a failure if we can't give all the children of even the humblest parentage an equal start in life -- the same food and proper care that only the wealthy can afford now." The Hatem family moved to North Carolina in 1922, and Hatem later de cided to study premedicine at the Uni versity of North Carolina, where he received his undergraduate degree.

Hatem started his medical studies at the American University in Beirut and received his medical degree from the University of Geneva in Switzerland. In 1933, he and two doctors who had been his classmates went to Shanghai to study tropical diseases. Hatem never left. Shortly after his arrival in China, Hatem became friends with journalist Edgar Snow, who told him about the ife to Chinese Communists. When Mao Tse-tung be came head of the Communist Party, he sent word to Shanghai that he wanted a "Western-trained doctor and an honest journalist."

Snow and Hatem managed to get through the Nationalist army lines to the Communists, where they first met Chou En-lai, then Mao. Hatem returned to Shanghai when the Red Army took over China in 1949. As chief of staff of the Chinese Insti tute of Dermatology and Venereology, he set up a patriotic health movement. His first targets were acute communica ble diseases such as cholera and small pox. The next battle, against venereal dis ease, involved going to brothels, treat ing the infected prostitutes and shutting down the brothels within 48 hours. The women were retrained in other jobs. The work against venereal disease lasted 12 years. At the time of his death, he was involved in a similar fight against lep rosy.

He is survived by his wife, Ssu-fei; a son, Yuma; a daughter, Liang Bi; a sister, Shafia Hatem of North Carolina, and two grandchildren.

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