If Dr. Otto Yang is wearing a button-down shirt, it’s a good bet there will be an antique fountain pen clipped in his breast pocket. If so, it likely will be one of the more than 300 that he has collected and restored over the course of 30 years.
For a researcher and clinician who examines the world at the cellular level, a love for such old-fashioned writing implements may seem incongruous. But with its form, function and history, the vintage fountain pen reflects a bygone era to which Yang has been drawn since childhood.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been intrigued by things that are very old,” he says. “I started out in collecting, just like a lot of kids do, with stamps and coins and things like that. As I got older, my interest in antiques just grew from there.”
It is an interest that transports him ages away from his day job as a professor of medicine and associate chief of the UCLA Division of Infectious Diseases. Over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the foundation he laid with his more than two decades of research at UCLA on immune therapies and vaccines against HIV, as well as other viral infections and diseases, has made him a go-to expert on the new coronavirus; since the pandemic was first declared in March 2020, his name has appeared in news stories more than 5,000 times.
What would become his passion for antique pens began during his medical training when, as a resident at Bellevue Hospital in New York City in 1991, Dr. Yang was browsing a stall in one of the area’s large flea markets and an unusual object caught his eye. Shaped like a small barrel, with a removable cap and a curving triangular tip, it was an antique fountain pen. He purchased it, and the beginning of his remarkable collection was born.
“Antique fountain pens first captured my attention because of the variety of interesting designs, but then I came to appreciate the function as well,” he says. “Early pens, even the fairly inexpensive ones, far outperform many modern fountain pens, which are so expensive and have become status symbols now.”