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Vejjabul, Pierra (b. 1909)

Vejjabul, Pierra (b. 1909)

Thai physician. Name variations: Dr. Pierra. Born Kunying Pierra Hoontrakul on November 27, 1909,in Lampang, Siam (now Thailand); daughter of Thongkich Hoontrakul (a teak merchant) and Phon He Hoontrakul; Sorbonne, Paris, M.B., 1934, M.D. with Silver Medal, diploma of hygiene, 1936.

Born Kunying Pierra Hoontrakul in Lampang, Thailand, in 1909 to the third wife of a successful teak merchant, Pierra Vejjabul (or Dr. Pierra, as she is known) fought tradition by pursuing a medical career. She was inspired by a French doctor who had saved the life of her mother, and her resolve to become a physician was further fortified when an unwed mother committed suicide and died in her arms. These experiences provided the cornerstone of her lifelong commitment to the women of Thailand and their children.

Although her father agreed to pay for expensive French boarding schools in Thailand, he refused to subsidize her proposed medical training. Denied admission into the American-operated medical schools in Bangkok because of her gender, she fled to Saigon, South Vietnam, when she was only 16, to further her education. Her father, however, soon insisted that she return home. Undaunted, Pierra convinced her father to allow her to travel to London as the governess for a Thai prince's family. She then sold her valuables and used the blank check he had given her to run away to Paris, thereby financing her early training at the Sorbonne School of Medicine. She earned an M.B. in 1934 and an M.D. in 1936 from the French Academy, graduating with honors.

Following the completion of her medical studies, Pierra returned to Bangkok in 1937 and began working as a medical officer in the division of venereal diseases at the Hospital of the Ministry of Public Health. She instituted the practice of using blood tests to determine the presence of syphilis among factory workers and government employees and was eventually appointed acting director of the division. She also introduced a dual study of venereal diseases from the perspective of medicine as well as sociology, and worked to educate the public on the issue.

From the beginning of her career, Pierra crusaded tirelessly for women's rights. Repeatedly working to improve the unhygienic practices in child care, she also opposed other Thai traditions that were detrimental to women, including polygamy and prostitution, despite threats to her own life. Through the Ministry and later through her own Pierra Maternity and Child Welfare Foundation, she further joined in the international effort to solve global medical and social welfare problems. In 1950, she also helped found the Association of Women Physicians in Thailand.

Willing to embrace sensitive subjects, she was particularly concerned with the problem of prostitutes in Thailand, and she pioneered a study on their rehabilitation. During the late 1930s, Pierra worked for the Ministry of the Interior in fighting venereal diseases. When the Ministry of Public Health appointed her as the overseer of licensed prostitution, she began a project in 1938 to cure venereal diseases among prostitutes. Concurrently, she founded the Institute for Social Welfare for Women, an organization dedicated to rehabilitating prostitutes. She later took a leading position with the National Research on Prostitution in Thailand and in 1960 played a pivotal role in securing the enactment of legislation that abolished legal prostitution. After that time, she focused on creating halfway homes that emphasized vocational retraining for prostitutes. She also devoted substantial energy to studying the rise in Thai rates of divorce and juvenile delinquency, the issue of homosexuality, and the appearance of venereal diseases among teens.

The Pierra Maternity and Child Welfare Foundation, founded by Pierra in 1938, provided free medical care and lodging to needy mothers. She also taught mothers the best psychological and hygienic methods for rearing children as a

means of raising the living standard of the family as a whole. Toward this same end, she published Mother and Child Magazine and gave weekly radio talks on child care, child guidance, the protection of children, and venereal diseases. Through the Pierra Foundation, she also legally adopted children whose parents were unable to provide for them. By 1963, she had fostered 660 children, 77 of whom were still living with her. When the Hoontrakul family objected to having all of these children bear their name, Thai Premier Luang Pibul Songram bestowed her with the name "Vejjabul," which means "complete doctor."

In 1956, she joined the governing body of the International Family Planning Association and helped found the Thai Family Planning Association, for which Vejjabul also served as vice-president. In 1957, she also served on the executive committee of the International Union Against Venereal Diseases and Treponematosis, and in 1960, she joined the British Eugenics Society. For her lifelong efforts, Vejjabul received the Thai government's Order of the Crown of Siam and the Order of the White Elephant, as well as the Silver Order of the Thai Red Cross Society. The French government decorated her as a Commander of the Legion of Honor, and in 1963 the United States presented her with the prestigious Albert Einstein Award for humanitarian efforts.

sources:

Current Biography 1964. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1964.

Lisa S. Weitzman , freelance writer, Cleveland, Ohio

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