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

Canadian Women, War, and Wheat Bread

By Sarah Cavanagh

Image courtesy of Archival & Special Collections, University of Guelph Library.

While rustic sourdoughs and fancy homemade bagels have filled Canadian kitchens during the pandemic, another way to pass the time (and give even the dodgiest sourdough boule a respectable look and taste by comparison) is to recreate the thrifty bread of wartime. Many of these feature in a 1917 Canadian collection of First World War recipes, Ethel Chapman’s War Breads: How the Housekeeper May Help to Save the Country’s Wheat Supply. This 16-page recipe pamphlet, jointly produced by the Ontario Department of Agriculture and the Women’s Institutes, instructed housewives to save wheat for soldiers and cook with alternate grains–corn, barley, oats, and rye–some of which carried the unfortunate stigma of being livestock feed.[i]  

 

“Vision Your Sons, Mothers of Canada!”, The Grimsby Independent (19 September 1917): 7.

The War Breads publication flowed from the Canadian government’s decision to support Allied efforts overseas via a domestic food conservation policy in June 1917 that included domestic rationing and ensuring the continuous export of food to Britain. Subsequent propaganda campaigns targeting women were tinged with emotion, premised on patriotism and moral duty.  Housewives were asked to symbolize their commitment to King and country by signing and displaying “Food Service Pledges” in their front windows. A September 1917 food pledge advertisement headlined “Vision Your Sons, Mothers of Canada!” urged women to think what would happen if one morning, there was no breakfast for the “valiant boys” and “word went down the line that Canada had failed them.” The solution, the ad reads, was for women to forgo white flour and vary their baking by using one-third oatmeal, corn, barley or rye flour.[ii]  Meanwhile, an Ontario farmer took the unusual step of mailing his wife’s war bread by parcel post to the editor of The Toronto Daily Star to prove that less expensive oatmeal grain was not just delicious, but economical for the household and a service to the nation.[iii]

The pamphlet’s physical appearance matches the bread’s frugality, with few images, save three rather pathetic photographs of unappealing dark and deflated brown loaves on the title page. I opted to recreate a recipe for a steamed Boston Brown Bread, mainly because the cooking technique was unfamiliar to me. The recipe looked easy – a handful of ingredients like flour grains, cornmeal, baking soda, milk, molasses – and brief instructions; however, like many historical recipes, it contained tacit knowledge from the era, with puzzling terminology requiring substitutions and improvisations – some more successful than others.

One challenge was finding a mould for the bread. The recipe suggests using a one-pound baking powder can, a testament to the ubiquity of the beautifully decorated baking powder cans produced by American manufacturers like DeLand & Co. and the frugality of the housekeepers who saved the containers for alternate purposes.[iv] I opted for a modern-day metal coffee can.  Graham flour proved difficult to find, and soured milk? I keep my milk in the fridge, so the addition of lemon juice turned my fresh milk into a lumpy substitute. Adding molasses to the flour/soda/milk mixture produced a gorgeous soft-brown coloured dough. 

Image courtesy of Sarah Cavanagh

The recipe instructs placing the mould in a “kettle” of boiling water, allowing the water to rise halfway up, trapping the steam with a tight-fitting lid. How big is a kettle? The only kettle I have boils my morning tea, so I substituted a large steel pot; the coffee can sat just below the rim inside. As the water began to boil, the coffee can bobbed up and down like a sailboat in the Atlantic, knocking the lid off the pot. Precious steam exited like a genie out of a bottle. Eyeing the nearby closet, I grabbed a metal coat hanger to quickly secure the lid in place, bending the wire through both pot handles and across the top of the lid, which was (mostly) successful. After the suggested three-and-one-half-hours of steaming, I removed the can from the water, wrestling to free the bread from its mould, resorting to an inauthentic can opener to remove the can bottom. The bread itself was a rich rusty brown colour, exceedingly dense and moist. My husband, whose parents lived through the Depression and the Second World War, adored it. It reminded him of his mother’s cooking, proving the sensory power of food and its connection to memory. For me, the texture was coarse, and it lacked flavour. The experience of making the bread was more satisfying than the actual eating of it.[v] 

Image courtesy of Sarah Cavanagh

This historical recipe highlights elements of wartime cooking: uncomplicated, practical, frugal. The bread preserved well on the counter for five days, a tribute to the power of the working-class staple, molasses. The four-hour time commitment illustrates domestic structures which bound women to their home. And while there was friction between urban and rural women about who was making the greater sacrifice, government-mandated food substitution was generally embraced by Canadian housewives. Interestingly, Chapman later wrote that a promise made by the government Food Controller to remove “the thing that troubled most women” was the key to securing their cooperation. The quid-pro-quo? A government Order-in-Council banning the use of grain of any kind for the distillation of potable liquors.[vi] Temperance and patriotism, it seems, went hand-in-hand. Alas, little chance of washing that coarse brown bread down with a shot of whiskey.

 

[i] Ethel M. Chapman, War Breads: How the Housekeeper May Help to Save the Country’s Wheat Supply (Ontario Department of Agriculture: Women’s Institute Branch, 1917). 

[ii] “Vision Your Sons, Mothers of Canada!”, The Grimsby Independent (19 September 1917): 7. 

[iii] “Maist Economical Is Oatmeal Bread: Another Experiment in Wheat Substitutes Which May Be Tried on Hubby,” Toronto Daily Star (30 July 1917): 8. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[iv] Advertisement for DeLand & Co’s Chemical Baking Powder, Wikimedia Commons.

[v] Diane Tye, “‘A Poor Man’s Meal,’” Food, Culture & Society 11, no. 3 (1 September 2008): 344.

[vi] Ethel M. Chapman, “Voluntary Rationing at Home,” Maclean’s Magazine (1 January 1918): 42-43, 62-63. 

 

About 

Sarah Cavanagh is a senior History/Canadian Studies student at Brock University.

Remembering Terry Turner (1929-2019): Pharmaceutical History Collector Extraordinaire

By Laurence Totelin, with input from Briony Hudson

A few years ago, my colleagues Heather Trickey (social sciences), Julia Sanders (midwifery) and I decided to put together a small exhibition on the history of infant feeding, with a focus on Wales where we are based. I immediately thought that the exhibition would benefit from the input of Terry Turner OBE, emeritus professor of Pharmacy at Cardiff University. I had met Terry on several occasions, usually in the Cardiff University staff refectory at Aberdare Hall, and knew that he would have something to contribute to the project.

Two ceramic tops with holes in the middle. The topc are both inscribed.
Two ceramic tops for the so-called ‘murder bottles’ from Terry Turner’s personal collection. A tude was passed through the hole. Because that tube was very difficult to clean, it harboured dangerous bacteria. This type of bottle caused the death of many babies, hence the name of ‘murder bottles’. Photo: Laurence Totelin

With his habitual generosity with time and expertise, Terry accepted to talk to me and invited me to his house. In the morning that I spent with him on this occasion, I learnt more on infant feeding than I would have done reading several books. Terry showed me examples of historical feeding bottles and nipple-shields from his collections and explained how they were used; told me about the mixing of baby formulas; discussed past treatments for breast engorgement; and gave me useful insights into the commercial aspects of the pharmaceutical trade. He also returned to some of his favourite topics: the pharmacognosy of the Strychnos plant genus, with which he started his academic career (MPharm 1960); some of his adventures in collecting pharmaceutical artefacts and plant specimens; and his disdain for modern pain relief, and in particular paracetamol.

Photo of two historical metallic nipple shields with their original carboard box.
Two metallic nipple shields and their original cardboard box from Terry Turner’s personal collection. Photo: Laurence Totelin

Terence (Terry) Dudley Turner was a key actor in the pharmaceutical community in Wales. He entered the profession at the grand old age of 14, working at the renowned Cardiff Pharmacy Robert Drane. He formally registered as a pharmacist in 1955, and saw his profession change almost beyond recognition over his long career: almost gone today are the pestles and mortars, which had been the symbols of the profession for so long; almost complete now is the separation between botany and pharmacy. Terry was rightly proud of his knowledge of plants and his ability to extract from them healing substances. He travelled the world to collect plant specimens and knew their names in several vernacular languages (in addition of course to their Linnaean names).

Picture of two glass historical baby feeding bottles. The bottles are made of glass and are banana shaped. They are accompanied by two rubber teets in their original wrappings.
Banana-shaped baby feeding bottles with rubber teets from Terry Turner’s personal collection. Photo: Laurence Totelin

With a changing profession in the background, Terry developed an interest in the history of pharmacy. He was a founding member of the British Society for the History of Pharmacy (established 1967), which honoured him with the Leslie Matthews Medal in 2017 for his contribution to the history of British pharmacy. He taught his students about the history of the discipline, he wrote on the topic, but above all he collected artefacts in their thousands and could tell entertaining stories about many of them.

His collection soon became too large for his residence, and he started in the early 1980s to exhibit, loan, and donate it. It is currently displayed in two main locations: the Redwood Building, Cardiff University, and in the Apothecary’s Hall at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. The Turner Collection, formally donated to Cardiff University in 2009, comprises some 1500 artefacts, exhibited over three floors of the Redwood Building, currently curated by Sarah Daly and Briony Hudson. At the National Botanic Garden of Wales, the visitor will enjoy a reconstructed historical pharmacy. While it is in many ways ahistorical, gathering in the same place artefacts produced over many decades, it does capture the feeling of being in a pharmacy around the end of the nineteenth century. I am particularly fond of the scales for weighing babies. Terry also donated and catalogued around 500 materia medica specimens for the National Museum of Wales. While these are not on display, they are a key part of the museum’s economic botany collections.

Terry passed away aged 90 on 13 October 2019. I often wonder what he would have to say about the current pandemic. His wit, optimism and humour are sorely missed.


You can find more information about the history of the School of Pharmacy at Cardiff University, and the Turner Collection in Briony Hudson’s 2020 book 100 Years (1919-2019): Cardiff University School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, dedicated to Terry Turner, and available freely on Achive.org.

 

Interview with the Editors: The Cultural History of Medicine

By Elaine Leong, Lisa Smith and Laurence Totelin

The Cultural History of Medicine, a six-volume collection under the direction of Roger Cooter, was published in April 2021 by Bloomsbury. The editors of three of its volumes happen to be past or present editors of The Recipes Project: Laurence Totelin edited volume 1 (A Cultural History of Medicine in Antiquity, 500 BCE–800 CE); Elaine Leong co-edited volume 3 with Claudia Stein (A Cultural History of Medicine in the Renaissance, 1450–1650); and Lisa Smith edited volume 4 (A Cultural History of Medicine in the Age of Enlightenment, 1650–1800). Each volume follows the same structure: an introduction, followed by chapters on Environment; Food; Disease; Animals; Objects; Experiences; the Mind/Brain; and Authority. In this post, Elaine, Laurence and Lisa share their experience of participating in the project, and discuss what the reader of The Recipes Project will find of interest in the volumes.

Photo of six books standing up. The books are the six volumes of the Bloomsbury Cultural History of Medicine series.
The Cultural History of Medicine. Reproduced with the permission of Bloomsbury.

What attracted you to this project?

Laurence: I had already contributed to one of the other Cultural Histories, the Cultural History of Women with a chapter co-authored with Steven Muir on ‘Medicine and Disease’. I enjoyed the format and the potential that the volumes have for teaching. So when Roger Cooter contacted me and told me about his list of chosen topics for A Cultural History of Medicine, I could not refuse. I was delighted when I heard that Elaine and Lisa would also be editors.

Lisa: Like Laurence, I loved the idea of a series on the cultural history of medicine; it seemed the right moment for delving into the topic, as the field had slowly become more cultural – taking into consideration emotions, materiality, and more. The list of topics that Roger had chosen reflected these wider concerns, including – for example – environment. It struck me that there was a lot of scope for authors to play with these themes in interesting ways, which would appeal to students and colleagues alike.

Elaine: Like Laurence and Lisa, I felt like it was the right historiographical moment to bring together such a series. I also really welcomed the opportunity to work with my co-editor Claudia Stein and the series editor Roger Cooter. As I was working in a research institute at the time, I jumped at the chance to reflect upon pedagogy with an amazing group of scholars. The authors for the ‘Renaissance’ volume met up in 2016 and it was just wonderful to spend two days discussing the various strategies we use to teach histories of early modern medicine and health, and to collaboratively create teaching materials designed for the modern classroom.

Was your experience as an editor of The Recipes Project helpful in any way when editing your volume of A Cultural History of Medicine?

Lisa: My experience on the blog gave me a lot of experience in working with authors to make their work really readable to non-academics, which I hope will appeal (especially) to students. It also made me realise just how much I enjoy writing with others. Historians still typically work alone, but over the past decade, I’ve been increasingly involved in collaborative projects of which the Cultural History of Medicine is one. In fact, collaborative work is something that helped me through the pandemic! Co-writing with others and editing (the Recipes Project and the Enlightenment volume) encouraged me to find time to write or to talk about ideas amidst the deluge of teaching and home-schooling. There is a particular joy in writing with others to create something different than what you would do on your own. Editing, too, is deeply satisfying; I enjoy helping writers to sharpen their ideas and to pull out their voices.

Laurence: I started work on this project at the same time as on another edited collection. These were my first two larger-scale editorial projects. I am really glad I had gained experience from the Recipes Project as otherwise I would have been entirely overwhelmed. I knew how to write to authors to commission work and how to edit in – hopefully – supportive manner.

Elaine: Yes, absolutely – I echo all the points raised by Laurence and Lisa above!

Had any of your authors contributed to The Recipes Project?

Elaine: Yes, a number of authors in our volume are Recipes Project contributors. Alisha Rankin, who has written about testing and trying medicines, poison trials and panaceas for the Recipes Project wrote a wonderful chapter on ‘Experiences’, skillfully covering the experience of illness, religious experience, experience and medical practice, experience and empire and experience and commerce in a mere 8000 words. I think that it would be rather hard to find a better introduction to the topic! Secondly, Olivia Weisser, who blogged about searching for syphilis in recipe books, penned a fascinating chapter on ‘Disease’ which masterfully offers a overview of various approaches to study the history of disease; detailed case studies of how early modern men and women such as Samuel Pepys (1613–1703) viewed their sickness experiences and an introduction on analysing patient’s narratives to learn more about attitudes to sickness and disease in the past. Offering both a broad historiographical overview and rich case studies, Olivia’s chapter works particularly well for seminar discussions.

Lisa: Marieke Hendriksen wrote a wonderful chapter on objects, focusing on bone as a material. She did talk a bit about recipes, such as how to clean bones and bones in remedies, though this wasn’t her focus. Erin Spinney wrote a great chapter on environment, looking at the built environment of naval and military hospitals in the Caribbean, including the defined roles of particular bodies (according to race and gender) within them. Erin was not a Recipes Project contributor, but she did work as an administrative assistant for us for a summer!

Laurence: David Leith, who wrote the ‘Brain’ chapter had contributed a post on ‘Painting Plants in Roman Egypt‘ for the Recipes Project.

Are recipes discussed in your volume?

Laurence: Recipes are mentioned here and there in various chapters: John Wilkins’ chapter on ‘Food’; Chiara Thumiger’s chapter on ‘Animals’; Rebecca Flemming’s chapter on ‘Experiences’; and my own chapter on ‘Authority’. In addition, Ido Israelowich’s chapter on the ‘Environment’; Patty Baker’s chapter on ‘Objects; and Julie Laskaris’ chapter on ‘Disease’ discuss various ingredients and treatments. Even though recipes were already well covered, I decided that they needed to be given more prominence. So I chose to centre my introduction, which was meant to be a piece of scholarship in and of itself, on a recipe which I keep returning to in my work: Mithradates’ antidote, allegedly created by the King of Pontus in the first century BCE. I found this a very useful device to introduce all the themes in the volume. In a way, that has always been what attracts me to recipes: their structuring power.

Lisa: Beyond Marieke’s chapter, no…. But E.C. Spary’s exciting chapter on food starts with the question ‘what is a food’, as she considers how its definitions are constantly contested and shaped by structures of power. This is very much the sort of thing we’re interested in at the Recipes Project! Despite the lack of recipes, I was pleased with the focus on the dark side of the Enlightenment that emerged in my volume: the tensions between imagination – or the supernatural – and reason (Roger Cooter and Claudia Stein on mind and Angela Haas on authority), the interest in human curiosities as animal-like (Monica Mattfield), and the multiple ways in which race, class and gender were inscribed on the body. It also highlights the continued, but changing, relationship between mind and body, despite the modern tendency to assume a Cartesian split in this period (Micheline Louis-Courvoisier on experiences and Lina Minou on disease).

Elaine: Yes, of course recipes are featured and in so very many of the chapters!  In Olivia Weisser’s chapter on ‘Disease’, for example, recipe titles are used to explore how early modern men and women tended to define diseases as clusters of symptoms. Karin Eckholm’s illuminating chapter on ‘Animals’ explores the use of animal products in early modern medicines, outlining both the use of kitchen staples such as eggs, animal fats and honey and more costly animal ingredients such as spermaceti, ambergris and bezoar stones. Sandra Cavallo discusses recipe collections alongside notebooks and other medical texts in her chapter on ‘Objects’ and, somewhat predictably, recipes and recipe books are dotted throughout Alisha Rankin’s thoughtful chapter on ‘Experience’. Furthermore, centred on Felix Platter, Sachiko Kusuksawa’s chapter on ‘Authority’, discusses Platter’s endeavors in medicinal recipe collection and exchange whilst a student at Montpellier, and places of this kind of informal learning and networking with fellow students and professors within Platters general pursuit of medical knowledge and construction of medical authority. Finally, while recipes are not explicitly featured in Rebecca Earle’s chapter on food, diet and health or Natalie Kauokji’s chapter on environment, diet and natural conditions, these chapters would certainly be of interest to The Recipes Project readers!