Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Butte Chinese: Dr. Wah Jean Lamb

By Richard I. Gibson

Dr. Lamb was a prominent Chinese physician in Butte from about 1902-1929, probably second only to Huie Pock in the Chinese medical community here. Advertisements like the one above appeared almost daily in the Butte Miner and the Anaconda Standard in the 1910s.

Dr. Lamb was the first Chinese to receive a medical degree from the University of Southern California, one of ten graduates awarded degrees in June 1896. He had been selected by missionaries in China to come to the U.S. for his education. This began a five-generation connection to USC, as several of Dr. Lamb’s children, including Paul, Faith, and John, attended the school as pre-med students, as did later generations.

Wah Jean Lamb was born about 1870, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1885. Following his graduation from USC, he came to Butte about 1902. He left Butte with his family about 1929, and lived in San Diego at the time of the 1930 census; in 1940 he was living in Los Angeles, where he died in 1942.

Dr. Lamb’s first office was at 9 West Galena Street beginning in 1902-03; he also lived there. By the late 1910s, around 1917, much of this part of Chinatown had been demolished and he moved his office for a few years (1917-18 and perhaps later) to 116 East Mercury, near the corner with Arizona Street. Also beginning in 1917, he and his family lived in a nice home outside of Chinatown, at 1107 South Wyoming, which still stands in 2013.

By 1923, Dr. Lamb’s office was located at 46 East Galena Street, where he continued until he left Butte in 1929. This location was probably within the Copper Block (also known as the Empire Hotel), west of the intersection of Galena and Wyoming. The Copper Block hotel was known as a brothel and residence for ladies of the evening, but the ground floor held a restaurant, saloon, and at least seven storefronts, one of which was Dr. Lamb’s office in the 1920s. The Copper Block was demolished in 1990-91.

The Mai Wah has a new display of photos of Dr. Lamb’s family in Butte, donated by his grandson James Chung. (See also page 67-69 of Lost Butte, Montana)

Resources: City Directories; Sanborn Maps; USC Trojan Family Magazine Winter 1998.


  1. Thank You for this great article! Found it fascinating and am so glad to learn about the maiwah society. I am a great grand daughter of WJL, but know very little about him (other than some of the family characterizations of him as an elderly man after he moved back to Los Angeles). As a fourth generation Chinese American, my curiosity about life for the early Chinese immigrants to this country keeps growing. One of my colleagues here at Univ. of Louisville wrote a wonderful historical novel called "Take Me Home" about the Chinese in the old west, particularly the mining communities. That novel opened my eyes to how unbelievably different this country was for the early Chinese immigrants than for us.
    Because I grew up in an Asian neighborhood where we had every educational and cultural opportunity available to us, I couldn't figure out why WJL lived in Butte. I had no desire to leave our wonderful community. So, trying to understand what the world was like for him, and what opportunities might have brought him there to live (I am thinking a Chinese community to provide medical care for, and a peaceful existence?). The only other thing I know is that he had extraordinary English language skills because I read the record of his court hearing when he applied for a visa to return to the US (he wanted to make a last trip back to China when he retired). They grilled him and were skeptical that he'd graduated from an American medical school but he calmly and eloquently answered the questions in perfect spoken word. That was one of the only insights I had into who he was-and might explain why he was willing to venture away from the typical Chinese communities in the west, NW or east.
    I'm excited to learn more about the maiwah society, to understand more about the life of the Chinese community in Butte generations ago.

    IF anyone has any insight into why WJL lived in Butte, would love to know. Hope to come and visit someday soon! Demetra Antimisiaris, Louisville, KY

    1. Thanks very much for your information! One possible reason he may have come to Butte is that at the time (1902) Butte was THE metropolis of the interior northwest, a cultural center as well as an industrial one. It held one of the largest Chinatowns in the intermountain west and it's population, while spanning the range, was overall quite wealthy.

      Are you in touch with your cousins in California? Two visited this summer - see our newsletter ( ). If you do not know them, contact me at and I will put you in touch. There has been some talk of a Lamb family reunion in Butte next summer, and we'd love to have you! Best regards, Dick Gibson