8 Groundbreaking Contributions of Asian Americans Through History

8 Groundbreaking Contributions of Asian Americans Through History

From disease cures to influential tech to workers’ rights, Asian American contributions have made huge impacts on people’s lives.

Though the Gold Rush triggered the first major wave of Asian immigrants to the United States in the 1840s, their presence in America predates the country itself. For example, in 1763, facing a life of forced labor and imprisonment during the Spanish galleon trade, a group of Filipinos jumped ship near New Orleans and established the settlement of Saint Malo, forming one of the first documented Asian American communities in North America.

While Americans with ancestral ties to Asia have made countless significant contributions throughout the country’s history, most have never made it into textbooks. From atomic science, to labor rights, to YouTube, here are a few examples of some of the major advancements made by Asian Americans.

Atomic Science

Professor Chien-Shiung Wu (right), pictured with Dr. Y.K. Lee and L. W. Mo, her associates, conducting experiments, March 21, 1963.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Chinese-born physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, Ph.D., was instrumental in the developing field of atomic science. This included the Manhattan Project: the code name for research into atomic weapons during World War II. Specifically, she improved existing technology for the detection of radiation and the enrichment of uranium in large quantities.

Following the war, Wu’s research focused on beta decay, which occurs when the nucleus of one element changes into another element. In 1956, theoretical physicists Tsung Dao Lee, Ph.D. and Chen Ning Yang, Ph.D. asked Wu to devise an experiment that would prove their theory on beta decay. Wu did exactly that, but did not receive the 1957 Nobel Prize along with Lee and Yang—one of many examples of her work being overlooked. An early advocate for women in STEM, Wu spoke at a symposium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964, famously telling the audience, “I wonder whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment.”

Farm Workers’ Rights

Julio Hernandez, UFW officer (left) and Larry Itliong, UFW director (center) pictured with Cesar Chavez (right) at his Huelga Day March in San Francisco, 1966.

Born in the Philippines, Larry Itliong immigrated to the United States in 1929 at the age of 15 and immediately began working as a laborer, up and down America’s West Coast, as well as in Alaska. By 1930, he joined striking lettuce pickers in Washington, and spent the next several decades working as a labor organizer and eventually, a union leader—including forming the Filipino Farm Labor Union in 1956.

In 1965, Itliong and some of his union colleagues organized the Delano Grape Strike: a walkout of 1,500 Filipino grape-pickers demanding higher wages and improved working conditions. As the movement gained momentum, Delores Huerta and Cesar Chavez from National Farm Workers Association joined Itliong and the Filipino Farm Labor Union. Eventually, the two groups combined to form the United Farm Workers, and the strike ended in 1970—but not before making major strides for agricultural workers, regardless of ethnicity. 

“We got wage increases, a medical plan for farm workers, we set up five clinics, a day care center and a school,” Huerta said in an interview.

Civil Rights

Though her activism was influenced by the two years she spent in internment camps during World War II, Japanese American Yuri Kochiyama’s civil rights work extended to the causes impacting Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Peoples, as well as Asian American communities. After World War II, Kochiyama and her husband—whom she had met at the Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas—moved to New York City, where they hosted weekly open houses for civil rights activists in their apartment. “Our house felt like it was the movement 24/7,” her eldest daughter, Audee Kochiyama-Holman told NPR in a 2014 interview.

Kochiyama befriended and collaborated with Malcolm X in the 1960s, and continued to work with Black civil rights activists following his death. Then in the 1980s, she, along with her husband, campaigned for reparations and a formal government apology for Japanese American interned during World War II. Their work became a reality in 1988, when President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act into law. 

“She was not your typical Japanese-American person, especially a nisei [second-generation Japanese-American],” Tim Toyama, Kochiyama’s second cousin, told NPR. “She was definitely ahead of her time, and we caught up with her.”

Flashback: How Japanese Americans Were Forced Into Concentration Camps During WWII (TV-PG; 6:20)

WATCH: How Japanese Americans Were Forced Into Concentration Camps During WWII

Ethnic Minority Psychology

Two Chinese American brothers originally from Portland, Oregon, Derald W. Sue and Stanley Sue, were influential figures in ethnic minority psychology. “Ethnic minority psychology is a subfield of psychology concerned with the science and practice of psychology with racial and ethnic minority individuals and groups,” says Sumie Okazaki, Ph.D., professor of applied psychology at New York University, and author of the book Korean American Families in Immigrant America: How Teens and Parents Navigate Race.

In 1972, the Sue brothers founded the Asian American Psychological Association—one year after writing a seminal paper on Chinese American personality. “Derald W. Sue is best known for his work on multicultural counseling and racial microaggression, and Stanley Sue is best known for his work on cultural competence in psychotherapy with Asian Americans and ethnic minorities,” Okazaki explains.


Intel Chief I/O architect Ajay Bhatt, co-inventor of USB and PCI Express, photographed at Intel in Hillsboro, Oregon, June 25, 2009. 

Although Indian American computer architect Ajay Bhatt had a hand in developing a range of computer-related technologies, the one he’s best known for is the Universal Serial Bus—better known as the USB. After emerging on the tech scene in the late 1990s, the USB became one of the most popular ways of transferring data from one device to another. The invention elevated Bhatt to celebrity-status in the computer world. 

“I was totally surprised by how it has impacted everybody,” Bhatt told CNN in a 2013 interview. “I mean, my name became a common name—at least at schools and in technical communities. I truly get a rock star treatment and that is quite unusual to me—people asking for your signature, people asking for your picture.”


Steve Chen, co-founder of YouTube, Inc., poses for a photograph at the Asian Leadership Conference in Seoul, South Korea, March 27, 2013. 

Two widely publicized but very different events from 2004—Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl, and the deadly tsunami that ripped through parts of Asia—gave Jawed Karim the idea for a video-sharing site. Along with Karim, a Bangladeshi-German American, the core team behind YouTube included Taiwanese American Steven Chen, as well as Pennsylvania native Chad Hurley. What started out as a way of watching and sharing funny cat videos grew into a much broader platform that captures the attention of billions of people every day. 

Functional Cure for HIV-Positive Infants

Throughout her 30-year career, Filipino American physician and pediatric immunologist Katherine Luzuriaga, M.D., has made significant contributions to our understanding of persistent viral infections in children. In addition to developing one of the early diagnostic tests for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection in children, Luzuriaga also conducted clinical research into antiretroviral therapies (ART) labelled for use in children.

In 2014, Luzuriaga and her colleague Deborah Persaud, M.D., were credited with being behind the first well-documented case of an HIV-infected child being functionally cured of the infection (meaning that the toddler showed no signs of the disease or detectable levels of virus—that is, without detectable levels of virus and no signs of disease, even without taking ART).

“Despite the fact that research has given us the tools to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, many infants are unfortunately still born infected. With this case, it appears we may have not only a positive outcome for the particular child, but also a promising lead for additional research toward curing other children,” NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. said in a 2014 news release from the National Institutes of Health.

Rights for Assault Survivors

Amanda Nguyen, chief executive officer and founder of Rise Up, Inc., speaks during the 2019 Makers Conference in Dana Point, California.

In 2013, Harvard University student Amanda Nguyen, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, attempted to access information on her rights as the survivor of a sexual assault, and found it nearly impossible. So when she realized that there was no national legislation in existence establishing consistent rules, rights and protections for individuals who have experienced sexual violence, she wrote it herself.

The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act of 2016 provides survivors with certain guarantees, including the right to a rape kit procedure at no cost, as well as the requirement that kits be preserved for 20 years. Nguyen was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, and is the founder and CEO of Rise, a multi-sector coalition that advocates for survivors’ rights, and assists people in writing and passing their own bills. 

Did William Henry Harrison Really Die From Pneumonia?

Did William Henry Harrison Really Die From Pneumonia?

Research suggests the ninth U.S. president may not have caught a deadly case of pneumonia after his long-winded inaugural address.

It’s common wisdom that William Henry Harrison delivered one killer of a speech after being sworn in as the ninth president of the United States—and it had nothing to do with anything he said. 

Ignoring the advice of vigilant mothers everywhere, “Old Tippecanoe” swore off his overcoat, hat and gloves while giving his inaugural address on a freezing, wet winter day. And in a quest to prove his virility while silencing critics who thought him an intellectual lightweight, the 68-year-old Harrison definitely overcompensated by delivering a whopping 8,445-word speech that droned on for nearly two hours. Many believe that history’s lengthiest inaugural address led directly to the briefest of presidencies as Harrison died exactly one month later on April 4, 1841—with the official cause listed as pneumonia.

White House portrait of William Henry Harrison. (White House Historical Association)

It is unlikely, however, that the long-winded speech caused the president’s death because he didn’t become sick, complaining of anxiety and fatigue, until more than three weeks after his inauguration. Plus Harrison’s lung ailments didn’t arise until the fifth day of his illness and were not nearly as relentless or progressive as the severe abdominal discomfort and constipation he experienced.

After taking a fresh look at the case, Jane McHugh and Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak of the University of Maryland School of Medicine wrote in a 2014 edition of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases that Harrison likely died from enteric fever, not from a fatal chill contracted during the inauguration. 

The pair pointed to contaminated drinking water as the true cause of Harrison’s demise. Before 1850, the sewage of Washington, D.C., was dumped in a fetid marsh just seven blocks upstream from the White House’s water supply, and the researchers surmised that bacteria seeped into the drinking water and caused the president’s severe gastroenteritis. Harrison’s history of dyspepsia put him at additional risk to the tainted water, which the authors noted may have also contributed to the death of another president, Zachary Taylor.

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Abigail Adams urges husband to “remember the ladies”

In a letter dated March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams writes to her husband, John Adams, urging him and the other members of the Continental Congress not to forget about the nation’s women when fighting for America’s independence from Great Britain.

The future First Lady wrote in part, “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Nearly 150 years before the House of Representatives voted to pass the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, Adams letter was a private first step in the fight for equal rights for women. Recognized and admired as a formidable woman in her own right, the union of Abigail and John Adams persists as a model of mutual respect and affection; they have since been referred to as “America’s first power couple.” Their correspondence of over 1,000 letters written between 1762 and 1801 remains in the Massachusetts Historical Society and continues to give historians a unique perspective on domestic and political life during the revolutionary era.

Abigail bore six children, of whom five survived. Abigail and John’s eldest son, John Quincy Adams, served as the sixth president of the United States. Only two women, Abigail Adams and Barbara Bush, have been both wives and mothers of American presidents.

READ MORE: Women’s History Milestones: A Timeline

The First Moroccan Crisis

On March 31, 1905, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany arrives in Tangiers to declare his support for the sultan of Morocco, provoking the anger of France and Britain in what will become known as the First Moroccan Crisis, a foreshadowing of the greater conflict between Europe’s great nations still to come, the First World War.

The kaiser did not have any substantive interest in Morocco; neither did the German government. The central purpose of his appearance was to disrupt the Anglo-French Entente, formed in April 1904. The Entente Cordiale, as it was known, was originally intended not as an alliance against Germany but as a settlement of long-standing imperialist rivalries between Britain and France in North Africa. By its terms, Britain could pursue its interests in Egypt, while France was free to expand westward from Algeria into Morocco, the last territory that remained independent in the region. France subsequently signed an agreement with Spain dividing Morocco into spheres of influence, with France receiving the greater part.

Angered by its exclusion from the decisions made about North Africa, Germany believed that the Anglo-French Entente went a long way towards the creation of a new diplomatic balance in Europe itself. An international convention had guaranteed the independence of Morocco in 1880; Germany now saw that the friendship between two of Europe’s most powerful nations threatened to override this, and thus also posed a challenge to Germany’s own influence in Europe and the world.

READ MORE: Why Kaiser Wilhelm Was Never Tried for Starting World War I

With much pomp and circumstance, Wilhelm—whose ship had faced gale-force winds on its passage to North Africa—arrived in Tangiers on March 31, 1905. In what would be known as the open door speech, he announced that he looked upon the sultan of Morocco as the ruler of a free and independent empire subject to no foreign control and that he himself would always negotiate with the sultan. He also stated that he expected Germany to have advantages in trade and commerce with Morocco equal to that of other countries. Wilhelm’s sensational appearance marked an aggressive departure from the German foreign policy under the legendary Otto von Bismarck, who as chancellor had united the German empire in 1871 and had advocated conciliatory gestures towards France and other European rivals as a key part of German foreign policy.

Although Germany had intended aggressive action in Morocco to place a wedge between France and Britain, it in fact had the opposite effect, strengthening the bond between the two countries due to their mutual suspicion of Germany. What began as mere friendship turned, after the First Moroccan Crisis, into a type of informal military alliance, including conversations between the British and French governments and military staffs and later, a mutual defense agreement with a third country, Russia.

In the wake of the kaiser’s appearance, an international conference convened in Algeciras, Spain, in January 1906 to conclude an agreement about Morocco. The resulting convention awarded France a controlling interest in Moroccan affairs, but guaranteed equality of trade and economic freedom for every nation and limited any colonial action by any nation without consultation with the other signatories. A Second Moroccan Crisis flared in April 1911, when the French pushed troops into the country, claiming to be defending the sultan against riots that had erupted in Fez but actually violating the terms of the Algeciras convention. In response, Germany sent its own warship, the Panther, which arrived in the port of Agadir on May 21, intensifying the enmity between the two nations and, by extension, their allies.

Slightly more than two years before the outbreak of World War I, then, the two Moroccan crises left no doubt that the traditional power balance in Europe had shifted into large blocs of power, with Germany relatively isolated on one side—enjoying only lukewarm support from Austria-Hungary and Italy—and Britain, France, and Russia on the other.

READ MORE: Outbreak of World War I

Warsaw Pact ends

After 36 years in existence, the Warsaw Pact—the military alliance between the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites—comes to an end. The action was yet another sign that the Soviet Union was losing control over its former allies and that the Cold War was falling apart.

The Warsaw Pact was formed in 1955, primarily as a response to the decision by the United States and its western European allies to include a rearmed West Germany in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO had begun in 1949 as a defensive military alliance between the United States, Canada, and several European nations to thwart possible Soviet expansion into Western Europe. In 1954, NATO nations voted to allow a rearmed West Germany into the organization. The Soviets responded with the establishment of the Warsaw Pact. The original members included the Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Albania. Although the Soviets claimed that the organization was a defensive alliance, it soon became clear that the primary purpose of the pact was to reinforce communist dominance in Eastern Europe. In Hungary in 1956, and then again in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviets invoked the pact to legitimize its interventions in squelching anticommunist revolutions.

By the late-1980s, however, anti-Soviet and anticommunist movements throughout Eastern Europe began to crack the Warsaw Pact. In 1990, East Germany left the Warsaw Pact in preparation for its reunification with West Germany. Poland and Czechoslovakia also indicated their strong desire to withdraw. Faced with these protests—and suffering from a faltering economy and unstable political situation—the Soviet Union bowed to the inevitable. In March 1991, Soviet military commanders relinquished their control of Warsaw Pact forces. A few months later, the pact’s Political Consultative Committee met for one final time and formally recognized what had already effectively occurred—the Warsaw Pact was no more.

READ MORE: Collapse of the Soviet Union