The 112th Peking University Medical Humanities Forum: David Chen--Modern Medicine and Traditional Chinese Materia Medica: the Origin of Chinese Materia Medica Research at Peking Union Medical College


On the morning of April 24th 2023, Dr. David Chen, the alumnus of Peking University was invited to make a lecture entitled “Modern Medicine and Traditional Chinese Materia Medica: the Origin of Chinese Materia Medica Research in Peking Union Medical College” at the School of Medical Humanities, Peking University. The lecture was chaired by Associate Professor Chen Qi (School of Health Humanities, Peking University), and Professor Zhang Daqing (School of Health Humanities, Peking University) was invited as the commentator. Nearly 30 teachers and students from the Institute for the History of Natural Sciences in Chinese Academy of Sciences, Capital Medical University, and Peking University attended this lecture.

Dr. Chen started with the scientization of Chinese materia medica, which has been discussed and concerned for a long time in the medical history of modern China, and the history of society and culture. Firstly, he gave a brief introduction to the Chinese materia medica research project at Peking Union Medical College (PUMC). The impact of Chinese materia medica research at PUMC in modern China was discussed from two aspects: talents and achievements. Subsequently, Dr. Chen pointed out the research motivation and the specific questions to be explored, that is, how was the most important practical project for the scientific transformation of Chinese materia medica established? Why does PUMC, an important center of scientific medicine in modern China, study traditional Chinese materia medica?

Dr. Chen reviewed existing research and literature, and pointed out the current decision-making, motivation, and purpose of Chinese materia medica research at PUMC. At present, there is no research on the opportunities and processes for Chinese materia medica research at PUMC. On the basis of consulting a large number of original files, he reconstructed the background and process of PUMC’s Chinese materia medica research project. Dr. Chen focused on the development and interaction of the PUMC, the Department of Physiology and the faculty of the Department from April 1918 to March 1921. In addition, the management personnel of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, and Richard M. Pearce who worked at PUMC on behalf of the foundation, had made efforts to coordinate various contradictions. Dr. Chen introduced in detail the research of the missionary doctor Ralph G. Mills on Chinese materia medica when Mills was in Korea from 1913 to 1918. He also detailed the process of the Rockefeller Foundation’s decision in the spring of 1920 to let the PUMC receive his research results and materials. Furthermore, the impact of this decision on the coordination plan, which was launched by Pearce and others at the end of the year was emphasized.

  On the basis of these historical materials, Dr. Chen proposed a new explanation for the origin of the Chinese materia medica research project at PUMC. It is believed that this research, which contradicts the goal of promoting modern scientific medicine, has become possible at PUMC. Actually, it is a by-product of the comprehensive plan of the Rockefeller Foundation management to control the growth of school funds, coping with the difficulties in recruiting pharmacology teachers and coordinating the relationship between teachers. It is not out of any predetermined plans or grand goals of any medical authorities or school faculty for the scientific transformation of Chinese materia medica. In fact, it is an accidental continuation of Mills’ research on Chinese materia medica in Korea. Although it also has factors such as European and American people not completely rejecting Chinese materia medica, as well as Bernard E. Read, a pharmacist and teacher, who had an interest in Chinese materia medica research and his timely grasp of career opportunities.

Finally, a heated discussion on the issues of “the discovery of ephedrine”, “the changes in attitude towards Chinese materia medica research at PUMC”, “C. Park”, “stories worth exploring behind existing historical narratives” and “the organizational structure in PUMC” was carried out among teachers and students.


Yang Wenjun