The scientist behind anti-aging creams
University of Ottawa alumnus Ruey Yu (PhD ’66) contributed to a discovery in the 1970s that revolutionized the skin care industry: he and an American colleague, Eugene Van Scott, found that fruit acids known as AHAs could treat a disfiguring skin disease and also had anti-aging properties. Their breakthrough led to a multi-million-dollar global market based on AHAs.
The discovery is only part of Yu’s incredible life story. Born into extreme poverty in Japanese-occupied Taiwan, he survived near-starvation and air raids during the Second World War. His brilliance and insatiable appetite for learning earned him coveted opportunities to pursue his education. In 1962, he received a doctoral scholarship to study chemistry at uOttawa.
In November 2017, the University conferred an honorary doctorate on Yu at a special convocation ceremony. Now 85, he continues to conduct research and is currently investigating the biochemical basis of Alzheimer’s disease.
Ruey Yu tells his story in a new memoir, Journey of a Thousand Miles, written with Kate Jaimet and published by University of Ottawa Press. Below are excerpts from this compelling account of an extraordinary life.
By Ruey Yu
In 1940, the railway company transferred my father out of Taiwan to Japanese-occupied mainland China. Because we had no telephone, and Ah-Shain’s illiteracy prevented him from writing letters, we would hear no news from my father for the next two years.
My father’s departure left our family destitute. The railway company evicted us from the barracks behind the station since my father no longer worked there. From then on, any money that my father sent home would have to pay not only for food and clothing, but for shelter too.
Somehow, my mother found a place where we could afford to live. It was a one-room shack on the grounds of a brick factory, with a dirt floor and drafty mud-and-bamboo walls. The tin roof was so leaky that I could lie in bed at night and look up through the holes to count the stars.
More like a toolshed than a home, the shack had never been meant as a human dwelling. It was built into the side of a hill, so that the top of the shed lay on the same level as the road on the hilltop above. People passing by often mistook our tin roof for a gutter.
I remember my humiliation one day when a mother and her young daughter were walking on the street above our home. The girl asked, “Mother, do you think someone lives here?” I was just underneath, and I heard the mother say: “I think so. But they shouldn’t. A place like that isn’t fit for human beings.”
Another time, when I was leaving for school in the morning, I turned around in the doorway and said “goodbye” to my mother in Japanese, as our teachers had taught us to do. At that moment, one of the teachers happened to be walking past. He stopped and stared at me with his mouth wide open. He couldn’t believe that such a well-behaved boy could emerge from such miserable living conditions.
Food grew scarce. There was no cooking oil, no meat. Those valuable foodstuffs were sent to the front to feed the Japanese troops. Several times a week, air raid sirens sounded and we ran for the shelter of underground bunkers. In those trenches, covered by dirt roofs, I huddled with my brother, praying to Buddha, listening for the shuuuuuu of the bombs dropping from the sky and the boom as they hit the earth. Some fell so close the entire dugout shook.
One time after an air raid, we returned home to find that the Americans had targeted the brick factory where we lived. A bomb had torn a gaping hole in the bamboo wall of our shack, and on our bed lay a huge chunk of steel shrapnel. I couldn’t help imagining what gruesome fate would have befallen us if we’d been tucked in bed, asleep, when the bomb hit.
Three weeks after I wrote the university entrance exams, one of my high school classmates came bursting through the door: “Ruey! You made it! I heard it on the radio, you got in!”
I ran at once to buy a newspaper and found my name on the list of 200 students accepted to the National Taiwan University. I was the only one from my school, and the only one from my entire city district, to have gained a spot in the most prestigious academic institution in the country. I was ecstatic.
As the news spread, neighbours, friends, and relatives crowded into our house to offer their congratulations. It was completely unprecedented. No one in my neighbourhood had ever been to college. Few of the kids even finished high school. For the son of a railway janitor to become a university student seemed like nothing short of a miracle.
People who had looked down on my father for his entire life suddenly treated him with respect. His bosses at the railway station gave him a promotion. “Mr. Wei,” they said. “Your son is a university scholar. You shouldn’t be cleaning toilets and serving tea.” My father, to whom all of this schooling had often seemed like a waste of time, finally began to appreciate the value of an education.
I felt a calling to become a research scientist: to invent things, to discover things. I wanted to study atoms and molecules and unlock their mysteries. No one around me understood this burning desire, except for one person — my high school chemistry teacher, Wang Pao Ki.
When I found out that I’d been admitted to the university, I went back to my high school to thank Wang Pao Ki for his guidance in my studies. He gave me two valuable gifts. The first was a jacket: I didn’t own one myself, and he said I would need it as a university student.
The second was a piece of advice. He told me to study chemistry — not chemical engineering, but pure chemistry. He believed I had a gift for science, and if I followed it, it would take me far. And so, against the common-sense advice of my family, I enrolled in the National Taiwan University to become a chemist.
In 2008, I donated $500,000 to the Department of Chemistry at the University of Ottawa, whose graduate scholarship for international students had allowed me to leave Taiwan in 1962 and start a new life in North America. With a matching donation from the University of Ottawa, a $1-million endowment fund was set up, which today grants thousands of dollars in scholarships every year to outstanding graduate students. In April 2008, I returned to the university to hand out the first Dr. Yu scholarships in person.
My old mentor Hans Baer welcomed me warmly back to the Chemistry Department, where he had taught for more than forty years. In the time since we’d worked together, Dr. Baer had built a distinguished career and earned worldwide acclaim for his work on oligosaccharides and nitro carbohydrates, used in antibiotic research. He had won the American Chemical Society’s prestigious Claude S. Hudson Award in Carbohydrate Chemistry and mentored generations of international students at the University of Ottawa, yet he remained as humble as I remembered him.
After Dr. Baer died in 2014, I created the Professor Hans Helmut Baer Scholarship in Chemistry, awarded annually to one international student admitted to a graduate program at the University of Ottawa’s Department of Chemistry.
I strongly believe in helping other people and working to create a better society. Not only do scholarships help young scientists to realize their dreams, but those young scientists in turn make their own contributions to the betterment of society.
Ruey Yu in the library of his home outside Philadelphia.