Chinese American Herbal Medicine: A History of Importation and Improvisation

By Tamara Venit Shelton

“Chinese herbalists imported everything from China.” This is what I consistently heard from herbalists I interviewed when writing Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. As far as anyone knew, when the first generation of Chinese herbalists began to immigrate to the United States in the 1850s, they imported all their medicinal ingredients from China through the port of San Francisco. By 1878, there were eighteen wholesale companies in San Francisco that serviced Chinese herb shops across the United States. In later years, herbalists could find what they needed through wholesalers in Portland, Seattle, St. Louis, and Chicago.[i]

Fig 1: Frontispiece of The Science of Oriental Medicine, 1902. Los Angeles Herbalists Tom Leung and Li Wing advertised their remedies to English-speaking patients through long and short-form print advertisements. Public Domain.

Historians of China are aware of the importance of improvisation and substitution in traditional Chinese medicine, and yet the prevalent assumption that all Chinese medicines were imported to the United States made some sense. After all, according to thousands of years of Chinese herbal lore, therapeutic efficacy relied on a highly specific process of procuring medicinal plants, animals, and minerals. The collection or cultivation of traditional medicinal ingredients in China happened only in well-defined areas, under certain seasonal, climatic, and astrological conditions.

Yet as I dug into archives, historical newspapers, memoirs, and oral histories, it became apparent that historically, practitioners of traditional Chinese herbalism in America sourced most, but not all of their supplies in China. There is ample evidence – both anecdotal and archaeological – that the Chinese in America grew and foraged for local sources of medicinal ingredients. These findings speak to the ways in which diasporic Chinese medicine responded to new conditions as well as to the resourcefulness and adaptability of its practitioners.

Fig 2: A.P. Russell, a West Virginia merchant, shows off a 1700 pound shipment of ginseng destined for China in 1928. Wild ginseng, foraged in Appalachia, was a major American export to China from the late eighteenth century until its overharvesting led to near extinction in the mid-twentieth century. Public Domain.

Looking back to the end of the nineteenth century, we see examples of Chinese and non-Chinese farmers growing medicinal herbs and roots for Chinese herb businesses. In 1898, a newspaper in Washington D.C. reported that Lee Poit, recently transplanted from California, had given up trying to compete in the crowded field of laundry and retail and was instead growing “many queer vegetables and herbs” on four acres of land that he rented near Terra Cotta Station, on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Line.[ii] Across the country, J. B. McCloskey, an American farmer who studied commercial ginseng production in Korea, opened his own farm on two acres in Oxnard and became the major supplier for Los Angeles-area Chinese physicians in 1904.[iii]

Zoological-based medicines also seem to have been locally sourced. The Chinese collected all manner of reptiles and amphibians – snakes, lizards, frogs, and toads – to supplement dried, imported varieties in America. Sometimes, doctors substituted local species that seemed similar to what would have been available in China. In Boise, Idaho, C.K. Ah Fong famously used rattlesnake (a North American reptile) in traditional Chinese tinctures to treat arthritis, and amidst other Chinese health-related artifacts from Lovelock, Nevada, archaeologist Sarah Heffner has found bobcat bones that may have been used in place of expensive, imported tiger bones.[iv]

Fig 3: Canton Harbor and Factories with Foreign Flags, 1805. European and American traders exchanged medicinal goods through this port city. Public Domain.

Substitution was just one form of improvisational thinking among Chinese herbalists in the United States. Studies of hand-written prescriptions from Chinese American apothecaries reflect a tendency to include an unusually long list of ingredients. This divergence may have been an artifact of herbalists’ swift business in mail-orders for patients unable to meet face-to-face. Patients wrote letters describing their ailment or filled out a pre-printed “symptom sheet,” and the doctor sent back a package of medicine along with a detailed instruction sheet. With an extra-long list of ingredients, Chinese American herbalists could cover a lot of bases when confronted with ambiguous descriptions of symptoms.[v]

Fig 4: Cover image of Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace. Yale University Press.

 

Chinese doctors in the United States were not so bound by tradition that they resisted adapting their formularies to their new environment. We should remember them as the innovative immigrant entrepreneurs that they were. As herbalist Li Wing Fawn explained to the Los Angeles Times in 1897: “We shall not confine ourselves exclusively to the importations from the Orient, but shall seek out also the very many valuable medicinal herbs growing in our own country [the United States].”[vi]

 

 

 

[i] Haiming Liu, “Chinese Herbalists in the United States,” in Sucheng Chan, ed. Chinese American Transnationalism: the Flow of People, Resources, and Ideas between China and America during the Exclusion Era (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 138.

[ii] “Lee Has a Chinese Farm,” New York Times, 31 October 1898, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Times.

[iii] “Local Ginseng Culture Promises Rich Returns,” Oxnard Courier, 27 May 1904; “Queer Chinese Medicines, Los Angeles Times, 11 August 1907, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.

[iv] Sarah Heffner, “Exploring Health-Care Practices of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America,” Historical Archaeology 49 (2015): 141.

[v] Susie Lan Cassel et al, The Chinese in America: a History from Gold Mountain to the New Millennium (Lanham MD: AltaMira Press, 2002), 178.

[vi] Li Wing Fawn and B.C. Platt, “A Step in Advance,” Los Angeles Times, 26 May 1896, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Los Angeles Times.

 

About

Tamara Venit Shelton is a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College and author of the award-winning book, Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace

Canine Cures or Our Best Friend…

By Marc Bruck

To paraphrase the old adage: dogs are humanity’s best friend. Loving, loyal and protective, they are often considered members of the family. They are symbols of wealth and power, love and affection. Recent accounts in the popular press, such as the Guardian’s piece from July “Hot dogs: What soaring puppy thefts tell us about Britain today”, have shown that they are also valuable accessories to modern life. However, in Early Modern Europe, the qualities of the canine were much more varied than that of a cherished companion. In particular, until the end of the Eighteenth Century, folk healers identified dogs as treasure troves for medical remedies and treatments. While an affront to many modern sensibilities, dogs were not simply pets, but were themselves useful sources of materia medica that cured a variety of ailments.  This essay puts the focus on an aspect of dogs that is ubiquitous with the ownership of the animal, dog feces, which was known in medicinal terms as album graecum

The use of  dog feces in medicine can be traced back to ancient Egypt and classical Greece and Rome. Known by a variety of medicalized names in the premodern period, including album graecum, tercus canis, cynocoprus,zibethum caninum, and flores melampi, the medical feces comes from dogs that are fed limited diets of bones alone.  Album graecum, therefore, is white dung produced by a dog (preferably a white one) that is free of color and obnoxious smells (Fig. 1).

Figure 1 – Album graecum

At the chemical level, album graecum contained significant amounts of calcium phosphate, mineral that figures prominently in many modern drugs and remedies.  Today, for human consumption, the mineral is largely extracted from the mineral Apatite, while in veterinary practice it is derived from animal calcium and bone meal.

In early modern European recipe books, album graecum was used as a dried and friable element in medicines for everyday ailments.  For instance,  one can find the white powder incorporated in the records of the seventeenth century German doctors von Mynsicht (1588-1638) and Ettmüller (1644-1683).  In the eighteenth century, album graecum appeared in pharmacopoeias across Europe. The Cyclopaedia of Chambers of 1728 designates its usage “with honey, to clean and deterge, chiefly in Inflammations of the Throat; and that principally outwardly, as a Plaister.”

The medicinal uses of the materia medica of dogs figures prominently in a fascinating mid-eighteenth century medical manuscript written by a healer called Sébastien-François de Blanchart.  Penned largely in French, de Blanchart’s work is known as the “Vieux recueil de remèdes” and commonly called “Blanchart’s Remedies.” It is currently housed in the National Archives of Luxembourg, where it has been scanned for digital access for the public.  While little is known of Blanchart, his remedies featured everyday materials of unsanctioned healers of Early Modern France.  In particular, dog feces, or album graecum as it was known in Latin, figured prominently in remedies for moderate internal inflammation. 

The seventeenth century healer de Blanchart considered album graecum essential to the treatment of common maladies affecting the throat, though not for those where the inflammation obstructs breathing and swallowing (Fig. 2). His records show that white powder could be administered directly to the uvula by means of a feather or combined into a serum. In one recipe, he records its combination with a mixture of everyday items, including beer and honey. 

Figure 2 – Sébastien-François de Blanchart, Vieux recueil de remèdes, fs 200. National Archives of Luxembourg.

De Brouchart’s recipe for throat ailments calls for the following: 

1 pint of beer of the strongest and oldest available

6 pieces of Album graecum

2 spoons of mel rosatum (honey)

The preparation involved cooking the ingredients over a gentle fire until the liquid reduced to half its volume. The liquid was to be strained and sieved, before being administered to the patient either consumed by the spoonful or by rinsing the mouth.  

Materials derived from dogs figure prominently in numerous recipes from de Brouchart and other early modern European medical texts, which we will pick up in a subsequent post called “Puppy Love.” For more on the use of dogs in remedies, please see: Lisa Smith’s “The Puppy Water and Other Early Modern Canine Recipes” from October 23, 2018. 

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I am most grateful to Mme Zeien curator and librarian at the Archives nationales for making the digitised document available; it was originally classified as item 423 of the 15th department of the historic section of the Institut grand-ducal in Luxembourg.

Revisiting Erik Heinrichs’ The Live Chicken Treatment for Buboes: Trying a Plague Cure in Medieval and Early Modern Europe

Today we revisit a post originally published in 2017 by Erik Heinrichs on a seemingly odd treatment for plague buboes: the feathers from a chicken’s backside. Erik notes that there is a very long history of using chickens and chicken broths in medicine, partly because chickens are such commonly kept animals. I certainly remember being fed chicken broth when I was ill as a child, but I must say that I broke that tradition with my children. They still get ice cream though… Laurence Totelin


By Erik Heinrichs 

Titlepage of Philippus Culmacher’s plague treatise, Leipzig: circa 1495
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

While researching German plague treatises I became fascinated by one odd treatment for buboes that appeared again and again, despite sounding so far-fetched. One sixteenth-century version calls for plucking the feathers from around the single hole in a chicken’s backside, then placing it on a person’s bubo. The instructions say to hold the chicken on the bubo until it dies, when it must be replaced with a new chicken, similarly plucked. I soon dubbed this the “live chicken treatment for buboes” and after years of casual encounters I began to track the recipe more systematically. As strange as it sounds, versions of this “live chicken treatment” were fairly common in plague writing, beginning with the Black Death and lasting, amazingly, into the eighteenth century. Tracing the long history of this recipe led me to explore questions such as: Where might this come from? Why chickens? Why might healers think that this was a good idea? Did anyone actually try this or is this all theoretical? As a historian, I was also interested in change over time within the recipe. Here I found much to explore, as I followed the recipe’s twists and turns over a seven-hundred year period, roughly 1000 to 1700.

The “live chicken treatment” turns out to have a long history, indeed. Its origins seem to lie in Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, although it may be older than that. Chickens and chicken broth were a common source of medicine in early times, probably because chickens were such ubiquitous and useful animals since antiquity. Not only did Avicenna praise chicken broth for its general benefits for the body, but he also recommended placing a cut chicken on a poisonous bite or sting in order to fight poisons. In later centuries European physicians turned to Avicenna’s advice when they faced the mysterious and devastating epidemics of the fourteenth century. As Europeans emphasized the poisonous nature of the plagues around them, older treatments for poisons drew new attention. The first mention of using a chicken rump to draw poisons out of a bubo appeared in the very first plague treatise of 1348, coming in response to the so-called Black Death. Here the Catalan author Jacme d’Agramont seems to have introduced a novel and lasting adaptation of Avicenna’s recipe, although the “cut chicken” version persisted in plague treatises for centuries to come.

Most interesting for the history of trying and testing cures are the many variations of the “cut chicken” and “chicken rump” versions of the treatment, as well as physicians’ comments about how effective they are. Especially after 1400, physicians seem to be thinking about this recipe quite often as they seek practical treatments for the plagues of the time. Physicians were preoccupied with altering the recipe in order to reason out the nature of the mysterious poisons underlying the plague. Some add substances to the process, such as salt placed on top of the chicken as it is placed on the bubo. During the fifteenth century, a number of German physicians began to explain the treatment’s workings in a strikingly physical way—that the chicken breathes through its backside and thus pulls the bubo’s poisons into itself. This change led to the suggestion to hold the chicken’s beak shut during the treatment in order to force the chicken to breathe from below. My article (accessible here) show how all aspects of the treatment changed over time as physicians engaged with the recipe, including the quantity of chickens used, the amount of time required, and even the type of animal in question. This work demonstrates the importance of the recipe itself as a platform for thought, experimentation, and communication among physicians.

Perhaps a surprise to modern readers, many physicians praised their version of the “live chicken treatment,” describing it as effective and desirable. Such comments multiply after the introduction of print, which encouraged the production of plague treatises, some fitted with fetching cover illustrations for the marketplace (see image below of Philippus Culmacher’s treatise of circa 1495). In German-speaking lands especially, sixteenth-century physicians used their printed plague treatises to promote their own services and expertise at a local level.[1] This brought about a change in the genre whereby physicians seem more eager to discuss their own experiences with effective recipes in order to appeal to the practical interests of a broad audience. Amidst this change comes evidence that some German physicians witnessed first-hand the successful use of the “live chicken treatment.” Another interesting change during the sixteenth century is the increased attention to the bodily warmth of the chicken as the treatment’s active healing force. These emergent views provide a tantalizing link to modern medicine, since moist heat remains one of the treatments for buboes today. For more information, please read my article.

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[1] For a survey of German plague treatises from the first century of print, see: Erik A. Heinrichs, Plague, Print, and the Reformation: The German Reform of Healing, 1473-1573 (London: Routledge, 2017).

Ovid’s Toothpaste: Literary Allusion in One Medieval Cosmetic Recipe

By Chelsea Rae Silva

Women, declares the sixteenth-century physician Donatus Antonius de Altomare, “think nothing more unseemly… then when they laugh, to show their foule rusty & spotted teeth.” In order to remedy this issue, his text promises to “first shew how we may make [teeth] that are blacke as white as the shining pearles, & then how we may cover with flesh them that are weake & naked in their gums & how we may make them strong” (London, British Library MS Harley 4349, f. 258v). As Seth LeJacq noted on this blog back in 2013, the use of remedies would have been preferable for late medieval readers wishing to avoid painful surgical procedures like the one pictured below.

A dentist with silver forceps and a string of large teeth, extracting the tooth of a seated man (from London, British Library, MS Royal 6 E VI, f. 503v). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Altomare’s pronouncement, and the remedies that follow, attest to the indistinct boundary between cosmetic and medical arts, and between literary and medical discourse. I first encountered Altomare’s manuscript collection in the British Library last summer and have been fascinated by its contents for the better part of a year. Much of that fascination stems from Altomare’s use of literary techniques like allusion, personification, and narrative in his discussion of medical and cosmetic care.

The cosmetic recipes are grouped together and, unlike the other recipes in the manuscript, read as a continuous passage rather than a sequence of distinct texts. Altomare apparently anticipated the possibility of a reader who might crack open this portion of his medical collection to read—linearly, continuously—rather than to learn piecemeal. Perhaps the most interesting of these recipes are two deceptively simple ones for dentifricia, or tooth-paste or -powder:

“Also of the pumis stone the best & most profitable dentifricia weare prepared as Pliny saith. And the teeth rubbed with the poulder of yvory the teeth were made like yvory as Ovid.” (f. 259)

The allusion is explained at the top of the following folio, which bears the sentence “what if I command you to wash your mouth in the morning with water, that your teeth looke not blacke.” This is an admittedly poor translation of a question from the Ars amatoria—“Quid, si præcipiam, ne fuscet inertia dentes, / Oraque suscepta mane laventur aqua?”one that elides the original attention to handwashing in favor of emphasizing dental hygiene.[1]The textual evidence suggests that the scribe himself may have found this confusing, and the presence of the quotation on the top of the next page, without any clear connection to its original author’s name on the bottom of the previous folio, likely contributes to this uncertainty. But in its awkward placement, the reference to Ovid also invites a kind of literary thinking enabled by the text as it appears to read on first glance: the equation of some work by Ovid with the kind of transformation described by Pliny.

Ovid is better-known for his storytelling than his medical expertise (although his Art of Beauty, does include a number of cosmetic recipes, all are for facial cleansers or masks and none make use of ivory or claim to remedy dental issues). But the parallel implied between Ovid and Pliny is not necessarily medical in nature; instead, that two-word reference—“as Ovid”—suggests a literary resonance in the form of the story of Pygmalion. In doing so, it evinces the entanglement of literary and medical textual traditions, and the slippage that might occur between them.

Ovid’s version of Pygmalion properly begins with the Propoetides, women who became the first sex workers after denying Venus’s divinity. “Losing all sense of shame,” the story goes, “they lost the power to blush, as the blood hardened in their cheeks, and only a small change turned them into hard flints.” A skilled sculptor living in Amanthus, Pygmalion is disgusted by the Propoetides and, by extension, all mortal women. Rather than seek out a partner or a wife, he instead carves a beautifully lifelike statue out of ivory. The statue is so realistic that even Pygmalion himself is half-convinced that it’s a flesh-and-blood woman, and the craftsman falls in love with her. After he prays to Venus, the sculpture is transformed into a living being, and the two are married soonafter.

Pygmalion working on his sculpture (from Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose; MS NLW 5016D f. 130r). Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

What I’m most interested in is just how that transformation is effected. Returning home from Venus’s temple, Pygmalion repeatedly kisses and strokes the statue’s body, and the ivory begins to soften like wax under his fingers. He continues to kiss and touch her, “reaffirm[ing] the fulfilment of his wishes, with his hand, again, and again,” until the transformation is complete. In other words, it is the repetitive press and rub of flesh against the statue’s ivory which changes it into flesh itself.

That’s a surprisingly rich allusion to find in a recipe for tooth powder, but as recent discoveries have shown, we can learn a lot from medieval teeth. The touch of Pygmalion’s hand transforms ivory into flesh; so too, the dentifricia recipe suggests, might the application of ivory to teeth transform those teeth into ivory themselves. That two-word note, “as Ovid,” may allude to the events of the Pygmalion story, popular throughout the medieval West because of its presence in texts like Jeun de Meun’s Roman de la Rose. But it may also work as a promise of efficacy, suggesting to the reader that her teeth will be as beautiful as the ivory maiden’s skin. The latter possibility makes this two-word addition an interesting twist on the regimens falsely attributed to various noble ladies, like the dietary of Queen Isabella, in circulation at the time. This tooth-whitening recipe suggest that the power of celebrity to sell things like skin care regimens might have extended to literary and mythological characters as well.

Correction: This post has been updated to attribute the Ovid quote to the Ars amatoria.


[1] Ovid: The Art of Love and Other Poems, trans. J. H. Mozley and revised by G. P. Goold, Loeb Classical Library 232 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1929), ll. 197-98.