Online Video, Book Talk     

Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace

Chinese medicine has a long history in the United States, dating back to its colonial period and extending up to the present. Well before mass emigration from China to the United States began, Chinese materia medica crossed the oceans, in both directions: Chinese medicinal teas and herbs came west while Appalachian ginseng went east.

Event Type: Online Video, Book TalkAudience(s): Teachers, Researchers

Beginning in the 1850s, Chinese immigrants came to the United States and transplanted their health practices, sometimes quite literally by propagating medicinal plants in their adopted home. Chinese doctors established businesses that catered to both Chinese and non-Chinese patients. Although acupuncture is the modality most commonly associated with Chinese medicine in today’s medical marketplace, up until the 1970s, Chinese healers in the United States typically specialized in diagnosis by pulse (or pulsology) and prescriptions derived from mineral, zoological, and botanical (or herbal) sources. They struggled during the Great Depression and World War II, but conditions that seemed to precipitate the decline of Chinese medicine in the United States in fact laid the foundations for its rediscovery in the 1970s.

Book cover of C. Gee Wo’s Things Chinese; OHS Ethnology Collection

This book chronicles roughly two hundred years of Chinese medicine as a dynamic system of knowledge, therapies, and materia medica brought to the United States and transformed by immigrants, doctors, and patients as well as missionaries, scientists, and merchants. Over time, Chinese medicine —along with other medical knowledge systems deemed “irregular,” “alternative,” or “unorthodox” — both facilitated and undermined the consolidation of medical authority among formally trained western-style medical scientists.

Tamara Venit-Shelton is an associate professor of history at Claremont McKenna College where she teaches courses on the American West, Asian American history, environmental history, and history of medicine. She is the author of two books: A Squatter’s Republic: Land and the Politics of Monopoly in California, 1850-1900 (published in 2013) and Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace, which is newly available from Yale University Press. 

Tamara Venit-Shelton