Dr. Clara Y. Lim & Teddy Sylianco
A Couple Devoted to Lifelong Education
As passionate advocates of the equalizing power of educational opportunity across borders, backgrounds, and beliefs, the lives of the late Dr. Clara Y. Lim Sylianco (1925 – 2013) and her husband, Mr. Teodoro “Teddy” Sylianco (1921 – 1997), epitomized Preface’s core mission of fostering Equality Through Education.
Both natives of the Philippines whose childhoods were shaped in the fires of the Imperial Japanese occupation during World War II, they rose from impoverished beginnings to the pinnacles of academia and business, forging strong ties with leaders across the East and West at a time when international collaboration and cross-cultural education was still in its relative infancy.
Clara was, by far, the more publicly acclaimed half of the duo - in sharp contrast to the patriarchal expectations of the era. A world-renowned scientist, she demonstrated early on an academic brilliance and determination to succeed in an otherwise entirely male-dominated field: organic chemistry and environmental mutagenesis.
Graduating magna cum laude at every level of her undergraduate education from the top schools in the Philippines in 1947-1953, Clara was one of the only Filipinas to receive the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship from the United States government in 1953.
When she traveled to the University of Iowa to pursue her Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Organic Chemistry, her fiancée, Teddy, was by her side. Though neither of them had set foot beyond the borders of the Philippine islands before, they jumped at the opportunity to expand their horizons and learn all they could to improve their home communities.
They were married in 1955 in the heart of Iowa City, and, while Clara finished her dissertation, Teddy stayed by her side in America to support his partner. Over the next two years, he would split his time between the Midwest and Philadelphia, PA, running his increasingly complex Philippine-based textile businesses from post offices and hotels halfway around the world – never more than a half-day’s drive away from his young family.
When they returned to the Philippines in the late 1950s, they eagerly rededicated themselves to using their newfound knowledge to support the communities they came from – particularly through strengthening academic supports for aspiring scientists and businessmen from all backgrounds. Around the time of her induction into the Royal Society of Chemistry in London, Clara joined the faculty of her alma mater, the University of the Philippines, and revolutionized her field in her home country, becoming a tenured professor by 1970.
A firm believer that blending the best-practices of both Eastern and Western medicine could unlock invaluable healing potentials for people around the globe, Clara focused her research on empirically demonstrating that many native Philippine plants possessed unique elements capable of counteracting harmful mutagens. Rather than relying on solely anecdotal evidence, as had been the norm for decades, Clara sought to bolster these theorems through the scientific method, inspiring legions of future scientists to follow in her footsteps.
After first founding the molecular organic chemistry department at the University of the Philippines, she went on to publish over 50 scientific articles, 7 books and 5 monographs, while also establishing the Organic Chemistry Teachers Association (OCTA) and Philippine Biochemical Society (PBS) in 1973. Many of the textbooks she authored and edited remain in use to this day – a testament to the enduring value and academic rigor of her work.
In addition to widespread recognition in her native Philippines, Clara was honored in the United States, as well – a country that left an indelible impression on her and that she referred to throughout her life as her adopted “second home.” Elected by her peers as the President of the Iridium Chapter of the chemistry honors society Iota Sigma Pi during her time in Iowa City, she was later named a Fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences, while her laboratory was recognized in 1986 as an International Training Center for the Detection of Chemical Mutagens by the Council for Research Planning in Biological Sciences in Washington, D.C.
Throughout Clara’s illustrious academic career, her husband, Teddy, remained a constant and reassuring force in her life – and in the lives of their two daughters. Having grown a small textile and manufacturing business into one of the premier employers in the nation, Teddy proved unfailingly supportive of his wife’s professional endeavors. At every turn, whether on short day-trips for lectures or longer-term commitments for research or residencies, Teddy placed his emotional and financial resources at Clara’s disposal, pioneering a hybrid role as a businessman and stay-at-home father that placed him well ahead of his time.
This complimentary fusion of personal and professional strengths was perfectly encapsulated in 1994, when Philippine President Fidel Ramos held an elaborate ceremony granting Clara the nation’s highest honor – recognition as a National Scientist of the Philippines, in appreciation for her life’s work. As Teddy stood next to her, beaming with pride, Ramos congratulated her on revolutionizing the teaching of organic chemistry & biochemistry in her home country, saying that her valuable research contribution on mutagens and bio-organic mechanisms would power Filipino innovation for years to come.
For the rest of her life, Clara was often asked about the secrets to her success. Without hesitation, she would say, “There are no secrets. Just a lifetime of hard work, a never-ending pursuit of learning, and a very supportive husband.”
Towards the ends of their lives, and in an echo of the international experiences that shaped their careers, Clara and Teddy regularly traveled around Asia, Europe, and, finally, back to America to spend time with their daughters and their young families.
In 2021, her daughters, Eunice and Lorraine Sylianco, worked with Preface and provided the generous grant establishing the Clara & Teddy Sylianco Scholars Program. In prepared joint remarks, they stated, “Our parents believed fervently that education was the key to unlocking a lifetime of opportunity for every individual. Our mother’s love for teaching was evident in her packed undergraduate and graduate classes; and, over the course of her teaching career, she directly advised and mentored a large academic family of hundreds of students – many of whom have risen to distinction in their own fields and continue to champion her legacy of lifelong learning. Through the Sylianco Scholars Program, we’re excited to ensure that their legacy of learning and opportunity lives on to inspire and enrich the lives of the next generation, just like it did for them.”
Image Credits: Families of Eunice and Lorraine Sylianco.