Centuries of Scholarship: Bert Fung

“Father of Biomechanics”

Anyone who works in the field of biomechanics—or the mechanics of living tissues—knows about Y.C. “Bert” Fung. Some use Fung’s findings in their work, others were trained by or worked with Fung’s students, while a core group was lucky enough to study directly under him.

In September, more than a hundred researchers from all over the world came to campus to celebrate Fung’s 100th birthday and a career that earned him the nickname of “Father of Biomechanics.”

Bert Fung turns 100
More than a hundred researchers from as far as Israel, Taiwan, Singapore and China came together at UC San Diego to celebrate Fung’s 100th birthday.

For all his notoriety in the field, Fung began his career studying aeronautics at Caltech in the late 1940s and early ’50s. In 1958, however, his mother developed acute glaucoma back home in China, and Fung immersed himself in research on the subject, even translating journal articles for his mother’s physicians. That’s when he realized that the mechanical forces and physical phenomena that governed living tissues were largely a mystery.

Fung and his wife, Luna, at their house in Pasadena in 1949.
Fung and his wife, Luna, at their house in Pasadena in 1949.

“I turned to bioengineering, with a focus on people,” Fung has said, “because I felt that although we know so much about airplanes, we don’t know much about ourselves.”

Fung sought a younger university, one with a medical school and more freedom to pursue the new field he envisioned. He joined UC San Diego in 1966, and over the next 24 years, he, his colleagues and students analyzed the mechanics of all kinds of living tissues: blood vessels, skin, cartilage, lungs and more.

Fung is known for formulating an essential law of how soft tissue deforms under stress, a central element in car safety design. Even today, all crash tests rely on these fundamental studies, and the law has also helped researchers develop artificial skin grafts that better mimic natural properties and accelerate healing.

Fung later turned his attention to hypertension after the condition beset his wife, Luna, an equally founding figure for UC San Diego’s International Center. Fung poured himself into microcirculation—how blood moves in the body’s smallest vessels—and developed theories that shed light on pulmonary circulation, hypertension, edema and respiratory distress syndrome.

“After many years in the field, I really think that an interdisciplinary area is not just the one area plus another,” Fung said in a 2000 oral history project. “It’s the new product in between, which is neither of the mother fields. The interesting part is the new in-between part.”

Fung and his wife with President Bill Clinton when he received the National Medal of Science in 2000.
Fung and his wife, Luna, with President Bill Clinton when he received the National Medal of Science in 2000.

Fung had just as much impact as a teacher, and was always willing to help his students. Erin McGurk, MS ’86, for instance, was struggling in her master’s program but hesitant to seek help from such a prominent figure. When she finally worked up the courage to approach him, Fung spent two hours explaining the subject area and helping with her homework.

“That moment was my catalyst to decide that I could do this,” she said in 2007. McGurk went on to lead a biotech company that used Fung’s principles to develop minimally invasive devices that treat cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and emphysema.

“Fung taught his graduate students by letting them explore and attempt to solve the problems by themselves,” says Fung’s first PhD student, Frank Yin, PhD ’70, MD ’73. Yin and many other students of Fung would go on to lead, if not start, bioengineering departments at universities across the country. It’s a testament to his nickname as “father” of the field—even one of Fung’s grandchildren, Tony Fung ’18, is a now a bioengineering graduate student on campus.

Along with the academic renown and scholarship, Fung is most celebrated for his sense of joy and kindness. “He is the most joyful individual,” says Geert Schmid-Schoenbein, PhD ’76, yet another student now a UC San Diego professor. “When you step into a building, you can tell where he is just by the sound of his laughter.” And when Fung was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2000, he accepted the award at the White House, with a smile.

Y.C. “Bert” Fung passed away December 15, 2019, just before this issue went to press. 


Did Bert Fung or any other UC San Diego professor make an impact on you? Send your memories to tritonmag@ucsd.edu for a future issue.