Back

William Tan

Not an Obstacle, but an Opportunity: Fulbright Physician Lifts Himself and Others in Need

William Tan, PhD
Neuroscientist, Physician, and Paralympian
1989 Fulbright Foreign Student to Harvard University

For Dr. William Tan, any challenge represents an opportunity, not an obstacle. A physician, record-breaking Paralympian, author, motivational speaker, and cancer survivor, his extraordinary life is a testament to the power of perseverance and helping others. Not only has the Singaporean physician achieved his lofty personal goals, but he also uses his international platform to advance opportunities for people and causes close to his heart.

Diagnosed with polio at age two and paralyzed from the waist down, Dr. Tan faced cruel bullying from his peers in kindergarten, as well as mobility issues and poverty. Instead of giving in, Dr. Tan began a decades-long pursuit of educational achievement, working toward his dream of becoming a doctor. Despite setbacks, and because of his hard work, he attended Harvard University as a 1989 Fulbright Foreign Student. At Harvard, Dr. Tan earned a master’s degree in physiology with first class honors and built long-term connections with the institution and surrounding Boston community, including Boston Children’s Hospital. Dr. Tan’s impressive academic career also includes a postdoctoral research opportunity in neurosurgery at the Mayo Clinic and degrees in social work, medicine and surgery, and neuroscience from the University of Oxford, Newcastle University, and the University of Auckland, respectively. 

In addition to a distinguished academic career, Dr. Tan has prioritized giving back to people in need. He began wheelchair athletics at 15, becoming inspired to use his athletic abilities to raise money for children and those with disabilities. He completed his first race in 1987, racing for 16 hours to support kidney disease patients, because “winning medals, trophies, or prize money should not be an end to itself. It should be a means to further goodness and to help people.” 

In 1988, Dr. Tan aimed higher, competing in the Paralympic Games in Seoul, South Korea and raising over $18 million in charitable funds through marathons, ultra-marathons, and other competitions. In 2007, he became the first person in a wheelchair to complete a marathon at the North Pole in 21 hours and 10 minutes, in temperatures as cold as -13 degrees Fahrenheit (-25 degrees Celsius). Later that year, Dr. Tan became the first person with paraplegia to finish seven marathons across seven continents in 26 days, 17 hours, 43 minutes, and 52 seconds.

He encountered a different challenge in 2009. While competing in the Paris Marathon, Dr. Tan’s nose began to bleed. Though he made it to the finish line and returned to Singapore, he was given a devastating diagnosis: Stage IV leukemia. His doctors gave him just 12 months to live. Dr. Tan went through six months of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, still finding time to complete an ultramarathon to raise funds for the National University of Singapore (NUS Medicine).

Now, with more than 10 years in remission, Dr. William Tan continues fundraising, speaking, and practicing medicine as a physician. In defiance of the obstacles in his life, he continues to help, believing that “living life to the fullest means not only chasing my own personal dreams but living a life to benefit others. That is the best legacy.”