I'm your host, SJ Zanolini, together with producer Madison Zhao.
Today we're interviewing Dr. Tamra Venit-Shelton, a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, to talk about her recent book, Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace.
Her book offers a long overdue corrective to the study of medical history by writing in the contributions of immigrant- and Chinese-American herbalists to their communities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Previously dismissed as too few in number, or too medically suspect to be worthy of study, Dr. Venit-Shelton's book rewrites the history of medical practice in the US by centering one of its many heterodox margins.
Wishing to engage her further about the many complex themes raised in her narrative, including race and racialized stereotyping, trans-cultural medical exchanges, geography, and the continued salience of these discussions to alternative medical practices today, we present the following conversation.
The following resources are additional references made in this conversation.
Books by Tamara Venit-Shelton
Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace (Yale University Press, 2019)
A Squatter's Republic: Land and the Politics of Monopoly in California, 1850-1900 (Huntington Library Press, 2013)
On Chinese immigration to the U.S.
Madeline Hsu, Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration Between the United States and South China, 1882-1943 (Stanford University Press, 2000)
Jody Varon, “Ing Hay (‘Doc Hay’), (1862-1952),” Oregon History Project, https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/ing_doc_hay_1862_1952_/#.YpVpnlTMI2w
Studies on modern practices of TCM
Mei Zhan, Other-Worldly: Making Chinese Medicine through Transnational Frames (Duke University Press, 2009)
Stefanie Syman, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010).
Welcome to the Medicine Race Democracy Lab Speaker Series. I'm your host, SJ Zanolini, together with producer Madison Zhao. Today we're interviewing Dr. Tamra Venit-Shelton, a professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, to talk about her recent book, Herbs and Roots: A History of Chinese Doctors in the American Medical Marketplace.
Her book offers a long overdue corrective to the study of medical history by writing in the contributions of immigrant- and Chinese-American herbalists to their communities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Previously dismissed as too few in number, or too medically suspect to be worthy of study, Dr. Venit-Shelton's book rewrites the history of medical practice in the US by centering one of its many heterodox margins. Wishing to engage her further about the many complex themes raised in her narrative, including race and racialized stereotyping, trans-cultural medical exchanges, geography, and the continued salience of these discussions to alternative medical practices today, we present the following conversation.
To get started, we had really wanted to ask about your background, and what sparked your interest in this particular book project. I know that your first book, A Squatters Republic, relates to the politics of land in California in the 19th century. Were the materials that you engage in herbs and roots something you found within that first research process? Or perhaps was there more of a family connection that spurred the start of this project?
I do get this question about “How did you arrive at this project?” a lot, because I think it's not a likely next step, right? So you'd normally write a book. And then your second project is sort of a part of the first book that you didn't have time to develop, or it's a road that you didn't take with the first book, maybe you build on archival research you had done, and really, the two books have really on their surface, almost nothing to do with one another. In writing my first book, I learned a lot about the kinds of historical research I like to do. I'm a social historian. I like to research ordinary people's lives. I like to work with census manuscript data, public records, I like to find people and then follow them through space and time. It's just a sort of personal preference for the type of historical research I like to do. So there's that common current between the two books, but really the subject matter and the content - I had not been planning on writing a second book about Chinese Americans, certainly not about medicine.
My mother's family are Chinese American. My great, great, great well, my great grandparents immigrated to San Francisco about 125 years ago, and my mother grew up in Chinatown. All of her family still lives in San Francisco or the Bay Area; very big, extended Chinese American family. I really had no interest in doing anything remotely related to my family, and I kind of resented all of the people in my scholarly life who knew that I had this background and assumed that that was my professional interest as well.
So, I was kind of going down this path, and I was working on other things, and then I had a student. I think this is about 2011, so I was about three years out of my PhD, still working on turning my dissertation into a book, and I had a student at Reed College who had worked for Oregon Public Broadcasting. And she had worked on a documentary about someone who in Oregon is very well known. His name was Ing Hay, and he was a Chinese herbalist. He ran a very successful herbal business, you know, both diagnosing, importing, and selling herbs, way out in John Day, Oregon. Way out in Eastern Oregon - very remote, timber, a very poor county, actually, way out in Eastern Oregon. And in the state of Oregon, his apothecary has been preserved. It's a state historical site. It has a museum. It has an archive. It has a beautiful park around it.
And so my student had worked on the documentary where they've gone, and they've kind of reconstructed his life out of the objects they found in his old business. And she wanted to write her senior thesis on the process of preserving that space. She was interested in public history. She was interested in just knowing more about the choices that were made in turning this former business into a state historic site. So I was kind of helping her with that and thinking to myself, gosh, you know, this person is so interesting, and I wonder if there were other people like him, I'm just gonna look around, you know, and just sort of see, and it was that process of falling down a rabbit hole, where suddenly - they were just everywhere. Chinese doctors were everywhere. And they weren't just in Oregon. They weren't just in California. They were in Montana and Idaho and Arizona and Chicago and New York. And I just kept finding them.
And about, you know, six months went by and I thought, I think I have enough for an article. And then I just kind of kept going and going, and I couldn't stop. And suddenly, I was writing about my family, and I had my cousins calling me and saying, “you know, Uncle Edmund, his father was an herbalist in Visalia, you really need to call Uncle.” It just turned into this thing that I never expected it to be and kind of had deliberately avoided doing for a long time, but it was great. And it allowed me to continue to do the kind of historical research I like to do, but also get into this world of the history of medicine, which, you know, this is how I met your professor, Professor Li. I just find this field so endlessly fascinating. I mean, particularly social history of medicine, I can't say that I find the kind of technical procedural types of histories that people in history of medicine sometimes produce all that interesting, but I just love it. And I just think it's sort of this happy accident that I fell down this hole, I really was not looking for.
What a delightful reflection on the ways in which the start of a project often can look so different from the tail end of it. That evolution is just really lovely. Madison, I think you had another question about background for Professor Venit-Shelton?
Yeah, absolutely. As an Asian American, when we're talking about race, I'm often disappointed by the fact that race is often portrayed as this Black-White binary. So I was really excited to read your book, because it not only addresses AAPI history, but it kind of makes it the focus of the book. So I was just wondering, from an academic standpoint, what is the importance of including Chinese doctors in our discussions of the American medical marketplace? And on top of that, how is your book relevant for both API and non API communities alike?
That is such a great question. And it reminds me actually of a review that I got when I was submitting my manuscript to the publisher. So this is before the book is contracted with the press, when the press is still deciding whether it wants to publish your book. And one of the reviewers that this press sent out to, the one that I eventually did publish with, he said - I know it's a he, I won't tell you how, it's supposed to be anonymous, but I know who it was - he said, “We don't need a whole book about Chinese doctors in the American Medical marketplace.” And I think that part of why I wanted to write this book in the way that I wrote it, was because we do.
As you said, Madison, Asian Americans, Asian American Pacific Islanders, are often seen as being peripheral, or not a part of American history. There's a sort of eternal other, eternal foreigner status, that I think AAPI people have in the United States. They are never absorbed into the central narrative of what it means to make America over time. And I really wanted to write a book that was about how Chinese medicine has always been a part of the American Medical marketplace.
There was never a sort of moment of discovery, right? Like the doors open, or the gates part, and there are the Chinese doctors, you know, ready to rush the shores. No. From day one, from the colonial period to the present, non-Chinese people consumed Chinese medicine. And they did so because they believed it was efficacious, because they believed it was founded on good solid knowledge and experience. It wasn't something they did because it was weird or exotic or other. They did it because it was domestic and local and in their homes and in their pharmacies and in their doctor's offices. And so I really wanted to write this book that centered on Chinese doctors. And as you said, it's part of this larger effort to mainstream the telling of Asian American history.
It's related, actually, to a project I'm working on right now, which is to create an AAPI textbook for high school history and ethnic studies classes. And my co author and I, our kind of main approach has been to basically start with these major moments in “American history” - the Revolution, industrialization after the Civil War - and to say, look, Asian-American history, it's central to these moments. You can't tell the story of the American Revolution without talking about America's relationship with China. You can't talk about this industrial transformation of the American political economy at the end of the 19th century, without talking about the global flows of labor coming from Asia, beginning with China and then Japan, Korea, the Philippines.
So I think this book, if it does anything, I hope it really insists on the centrality of Chinese doctors to this story. This way in which we really can't understand the history of American medicine without understanding the place that what we think of as complementary or alternative healing practices have played within it. The way that Asian knowledge has been constitutive of what we think of as being, sort of, Euro or Euro-American medical knowledge.
I love that you make that intervention as well. As a person being trained as a historian of medicine, I fully agree with you that there's a very commonplace tendency to have a dominant narrative that totally misses the contributions of “other” Americans. And so I love your book as a corrective to that. Beyond the historiographic robustness of your book, I was also struck by the rich detail that permeates it. You use such a wide variety of primary sources. Between local and family histories, advertisements, articles from major and also very small town newspapers. How were you able to find, and how were you able to access these sources? Could you talk to us a bit more about your method?
So the historian begins in the archives, right? I mean, that's the kind of the bread and butter of what we do. You always have to get your butt in the chair and sit there and kind of sift through what formal archives and libraries have collected. As it turns out with regard to Chinese doctors, not many libraries, or major archives, or even minor archives, have collected. I think I could probably count on one hand the number of libraries and archives that actually had collections. Where it's like, we collected the papers of this apothecary, this herb business. We collected the papers of this anthropologist who went out and interviewed herbalists. Very, very few. I very quickly ran through all of those.
And then I kind of did two things. One, I maximized digitized sources. So, it's an amazing thing within the last probably like five to 10 years, so many newspapers - English language, Chinese language, Spanish language, big towns, small towns, American, foreign newspapers - you can get online, and they are searchable, they're scrapeable. You can do great things with the digital tools that are available. So that was a major boon to kind of ferreting out who these people were, where they were, where they were getting in trouble. Obviously, you miss a lot, because what rises to the level of a public record can be kind of limited.
But I also kind of fortuitously worked my personal connections. I think this is probably true of any Chinese-descended person: you know herbalists. I mean, or acupuncturists, right? Madison, your grandfather, you said, your grandfather was an acupuncturist. Like, they’re just, like, everywhere. And so I mentioned my cousin saying, “you got to talk to uncle Edmund,” but it kind of happened to me all the time. Like, I would be giving a paper and someone would come up to me in the audience and say, “You know, my neighbor, her dad was an herbalist in Tucson,” for example.
So this woman who I ended up meeting and interviewing, Anna Don, her father was an herbalist and had a very long career, kind of all over the American west, but wound up in Tucson. And I went to see her, to interview her, and she said, “You know, my brothers and sisters just don't have any place to store all these family records we have. I’ve just been keeping them in my garage, in a giant plastic tupperware bin, or actually a couple of giant plastic tupperware bins. Do you want them?” I was like, “Sure, I want them, bring them out!” And that happened to me, not a huge number of times, but enough that I was able to locate through these sort of family archives - well, they're not really archives, these family attics and back-rooms and garages - just kind of, more richness, more detail, more personal stories. People love to tell their stories, and especially of a certain generation, I think that they're not ready to let go of their family history or their personal objects, so they've been really accumulating things for a long time. And that was great. My first book, everyone was dead. Everyone I worked on was long ago dead and there was no kind of family connection. So this was a really neat opportunity with this project to talk to some real people and to get invested in real families. And Anna, especially, you know, she's quite elderly, but she was just so much fun. And just had so much love for her parents, actually, because it wasn't just her dad who was in the herb business, but her mom actually worked in the back, compounding prescriptions. So her dad would do, like, all the front office sort of interfacing, and then her mom was watching, I think she had, like, nine siblings. So it was like a huge family and her mom was doing all the childcare, and then all the compounding of the prescriptions in the kitchen.
And, actually, that was a really important connection for me to make because up until that point, I was giving these talks kind of regularly. As you're working on your research, you're always sort of, like testing it out, and you know, different audiences, and sort of showing off different pieces of it. And people would always say to me, like, “Gosh, you know, where are the women? Are there really no women in your story?” And I'd be like, “Yeah, you know, well, I just, I haven't found them.” And I could kind of make some stories up about why I hadn't found them. I was like, “Oh, you know, there weren't that many Chinese women who emigrated to the US at the end of the 19th century, you know, there's cultural conventions that prohibited their emigration from China. Or, well, you know, they might be there, but you can't see them because they were not public facing.”
So I had all these stories that I could tell. But it was really with Anna that I realized, oh, wait, I need to go look for them as the wives and the daughters. And once I knew to start looking for wives and daughters, all of a sudden, I started seeing the women everywhere. They were herbalists, too. They weren't the people whose faces were in the advertisements. Their names weren't on the business. But if you looked at the business records, you looked at census manuscript records, who's living in the house, you go and talk to the children, you find, oh, no, actually, they are totally in the herb business, too. They are midwives. And sometimes they would actually have their own business, but very rarely were they working independently of the men in their lives. One family I connected with, when the patriarch died, his wife tried to take over the business. And she - I think she just sort of couldn't maintain the clientele, ultimately. She tried to get her son in, and her son became the kind of frontman for it. But the business, you know, she kept it going for maybe five or six years after her husband died, but she wasn't able to do it.
I know that is such a frequent question in gender histories, “Where the women?” If they aren't directly presented in the recorded source, how do you find them? How do you engage archives that aren't necessarily generous in disclosing the presence of marginalized figures who were absolutely there, but not written into the narrative? I think your method was not only a very savvy one, but it also accords with my personal experience of visiting herbalists who practice out of their home. In almost every case, it was their partner, their female partner, doing the labor of actually preparing the medicine that I took home with me. And so I think that those gendered divisions of labor are very much still a part of present day practice.
Yeah, it makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? In terms of the sort of larger cultural context.
So speaking of that larger cultural context, I was greatly struck by the critical, but largely silent roles played by transportation, space, and infrastructure in your book. In your chapter “ Transplanted” on page 81, you write that: “For the most part, Chinese medicines were sourced in China because of the specificity with which each ingredient had to be cultivated and processed, and Chinese doctors imported medicines from Hong Kong or Canton through the Port of San Francisco. By 1878, there were 18 wholesale herb companies in San Francisco.” This gave me a moment of pause. That is so many herbal wholesalers at such a relatively early moment in Chinese immigration into the U.S.
You continue on to give these wonderful examples: a Chinese vegetable farmer growing local produce off the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and selling it to wholesalers in D.C.; an American ginseng farmer located in Oxnard, California, who was selling mostly for the Los Angeles market that he was near. And it seems to me that both of these farmers were capitalizing on their connection to places where there was a large enough Chinese American community to support either specialty crops that were vegetables or medicinals like ginseng. Then you continue detailing amazing examples of ingredient substitution. For instance, the Los Angeles herbalist Hopley, who hunted horned toads in the Sierra Madre foothills for his Chinatown pharmacy.
Sometimes doctors would also substitute local species that seemed similar to what would have been available in the Chinese pharmacopeia. For instance, “In Boise, Idaho, C.K. Ah Fong famously used rattlesnake, a North American reptile, in traditional Chinese tinctures to treat arthritis.” And if you have any more such stories, I would love to hear them. I would also love it if you would like to elaborate on how you see the role of major technologies like rail transportation, proximity to market places, and also proximity to uncultivated spaces in which physicians could go out and hunt out animal-derived or other wild growing medicinals.
So let me there's kind of two big questions, I think, embedded in there and one is really about I'm gonna say, Asian American immigration stories more generally, and how it is that these networks of merchants supported essentially what became transnational lives. That Asian American peoples kind of lived between Asia and the United States, that they were able to maintain economic and emotional ties to their homelands largely because there were these very elaborate networks of supply. So, this is something that Madeline Hsu writes about in her book, Dreaming of Home, Dreaming of Gold, the ways in which commercial networks permitted a certain kind of exchange of goods. And this really has to do with the moment that Asian Americans are immigrating, right, or that Asians are immigrating to the Americas, I should say. It's a modern moment. It's a moment when steam-powered transport, especially steamships, have closed the distance of the Pacific in new ways. So it becomes possible to do this kind of import-export business, and to do it rapidly and to do it well, you know, reliably, so that your shipments of herbs aren't arriving half eaten by bugs or mold or whatever. So part of the story is that these Chinese merchants are piggybacking on a much larger infrastructure of transportation and transoceanic commerce that has everything to do with the modernization of this era.
Then the other part of this is that, that they were doing any kind of local sourcing was not something I was told I would find. So when I started working on this project in 2011, I started off by working with some folks at OCOM, at the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine. And you know, I'm not a practitioner of TCM, and I was not, you know, someone who was a regular patient of TCM practitioners. I had some kind of basic familiarity with Chinese herbalism. I don't think I'd even ever had acupuncture anyway. So I was kind of aware of it, but I wanted to learn and kind of understand. And so one of the things that these researchers at OCOM told me, I mean, almost from the first day I met them was, you will not find any locally sourced ingredients in the Chinese formulary because these ingredients had to be so carefully and particularly sourced. And so I kind of operated on that assumption for a while, until I stumbled on these examples of folks who were very much improvising, I guess. And it makes a lot of sense, it kind of almost makes more sense than the opposite.
It makes sense that if you're in John Day, Oregon, or you're in Boise, Idaho, yeah, you might get shipments from overseas, and that might be great. But, it might not be enough to last you the whole month, or to stock your shelves, and so yeah, that bobcat is looking kind of good. And maybe you're going to use bobcat bones in something. So non-Chinese patients would sometimes pay for their services by bringing in parts of animals, like bear paws or bear glands; bear bile is something that was used a lot in certain medicinal concoctions. To me, now, at this point, I'm like, of course they were embedded in their environments. And of course, they were innovating and improvising with what they had. How silly to have ever thought that they wouldn't. But you know, they were very much living in an era where I think, theoretically, you could be importing all the things on your shelves.
So was it a frontier story? I guess that's sort of a third area. I don't know, because folks like the farmer you mentioned who was living on the B&O Railroad line. I mean, he wasn't farming a large amount of land, you know, he didn't have a huge number of acres. Same with the farmer in Oxnard. I mean, these were small plots of land. They could be kind of sub-urban farmers. And then, you know, the Sierra Madre foothills were even in that era, I mean, certainly undeveloped, they still are pretty much undeveloped. There's a lot more residential development there. But you know, this was a guy who was going out on the weekend, from LA, from the city, and probably just picking up a few toads here and there. So I don't know that it needed to be a huge amount of undeveloped land for them to be foraging. I think a lot in a lot of ways it was really that they were just sort of supplementing or augmenting what they were importing.
Yeah, that's great. And I really liked how you kind of talked about how there were actually non-Chinese people who are using Chinese medicine. And I think that's a really important point to bring up, and that's something I was really interested in. So in your book, you've talked about how Chinese medicine was called, or denounced, as quackery. But it's still continued to remain popular among groups who had distrust for the regular, Eurocentric, allopathic medicine. Specifically, and I'm going to reference page 123, you talked about how, in the late 19th-century Chinese medicine was particularly supported by women who viewed it as an alternative to often harsh and damaging western style treatments. So, I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that and the role that Chinese medicine plays in filling the gaps of allopathic medicine specifically for women's treatment?
I think this is a really important way in which history can intervene in ongoing conversations about health care. And not just women's health care, although certainly importantly, women's health care, but I think just kind of generally. We, and I say we as sort of people living in modern America, sort of modern, affluent America, we live in this moment where a lot of let's say, Western style, medical science is presumed to be supreme. It's presumed to be authoritative. And in a COVID moment, I certainly don't want to be like going out there and sowing distrust in modern Western style medical science, like. I’m fully vaccinated and boosted and my kids are, too. I'm very much a believer in science. I do think though, it's important as historians, and when, in thinking historically, to understand that that was not something that arrived fully formed in the 19th century. It developed over time. And in many ways, what Western style medical science had, at the end of the 19th century, was just like, one good theory of disease, right? They had the germ theory of disease, and it turned out to be good, but they didn't have the sort of fully formed, fully developed, robust and convincing method. They didn't have a pharmacopeia, or even a process of producing synthetic pharmaceuticals, that was really totalizing or going to make obsolete all other forms of knowledge and healing practices. So it's this slow, accretive process of accumulating power of manipulating the politics, and the flow of funding, so that certain scientists get supported, and certain healers do not.
So I hope in the book, you get a sense that Chinese medicine sort of thrives in these spaces where Western style medical science has not yet fully consolidated its monopoly and its authority. And it really, truly hadn’t in obstetrical science. For a very long time, obstetrics had relatively little to offer women. Obstetrics was a surgical specialty, so it was about cutting you open with a knife, right? I mean, that was what they went for. And I think that we can all, like, as humans, just sort of viscerally appreciate how terrifying that would have been for anyone. Let's say you're a woman with a cancerous growth on your uterus, maybe you don't want to go to the obstetrician, or the sort of the medical scientist who's going to take that scalpel and try to excise it, maybe you would rather do just about anything else to avoid that. So I do have this, at least one, very touching letter about a woman who, she writes to this Chinese doctor, she's like, “Please send me something, I have such a dread fear of the knife.”
And I think that was true, not only in sort of thinking about surgeries, but other moments too, like childbirth, abortion, that there was a way in which western style medical science did not offer safety or a sense of comfort or even a sense of a judgment-free zone. I mean, this is something I can't really prove with my evidence, but it does seem to me likely that for a lot of women, if they had a venereal disease, or if they had an unwanted pregnancy, that they would not have wanted to go see their family doctor. They might have preferred the anonymity that a Chinese doctor, in Chinatown, in an ethnic enclave where no one knew them, they might have preferred to go there. So there were I think a lot of different things that Chinese medicine would have offered to women.
I was struck by something very similar, not only with regard to the potentially expanded range of treatment options for people with a gynecological condition, but for people with any sort of condition. At some point, in your book, you discuss two of the big four California railroad barons, Mark Hopkins and Leland Stanford patronizing Chinese doctors, which just seemed really fantastic to me. I was hoping you could speak more to that. Specifically, the role of Chinese medicine, not only as an alternative medical option for people who didn't have other options, but also as an alternative medical option for people who had every option.
Yeah, in that case, I do think it was sort of a status thing. It wasn't just a practitioner of last resort or care of last resort option for people. It's a moment, especially the late 19th century, but really all of the 19th century, there was a sort of fascination with Orientalia, Chinoiserie. It's part of this kind of American Orientalist attitude where, you know, American Orientalism has plenty of forces of repulsion, right? In that sort of racist ideology that has to do with the conceiving of Chinese and Asian people more generally, as weaker, immoral, decadent, whatever, you know, fill in the blank. But to be honest, that went hand in hand with a lot of fascination with things from the Far East, with a desire for Chinese luxury goods, a fascination with Confucianism, and other kinds of “Eastern religions.” So, in some ways that someone like Mark Hopkins, or Leland Stanford, would consult a Chinese physician, or I think actually in the case of Mark Hopkins, when he died, his Chinese physician was with him, like traveling with him, so it was a pretty close relationship. I think it just speaks to the way in which that affluent white culture of the Gilded Age was endlessly fascinated and attracted to Eastern cultures, and epistemologies, religions, philosophies.
Yeah, I see a strong parallel from that case to the present moment where, when you read the work of anthropologists who study modern practices of not just TCM but all forms of East Asian medicine that have localized here in the US, there's this idea that for the most part, patients are white and affluent and attracted to this as a kind of Orientalized medicine. So to see continuity in that story over time, but with the racialization of actors shifted somewhat, is very interesting.
Oh, yeah. And I think Mei Zhan has a great book about that. She compares practitioners in San Francisco and Shanghai, and she has a great way of describing it that I'm not going to remember exactly, but something about, like, it's become this sort of mark of being bourgeois to go and get acupuncture. And I certainly, there's another book, actually, I'm not gonna remember the last name of the author is Syman, but it's Stephanie Syman, maybe? It's called The [Subtle Body], and it's about the way in which yoga and Ayurvedic medicine have come to the United States and been, let's say, absorbed into a certain kind of wellness, Goop, kind of social stratum. Yeah, I mean, in some ways, that is the sort of coda to this whole history. Taking Chinese herbs, going to an acupuncturist - setting aside everything we might believe about holistic medicine or efficacy, it is also a kind of form of conspicuous consumption and a marker that you are affluent enough to pay for these services. And we still live in a moment when most health insurance really will not cover, or will only partially reimburse for these kinds of healing practices. And so to have an acupuncturist, to see an herbalist, that is a marker that you have disposable income and the ability to shop for wellness in that way.
So I'd like to end by taking a moment to talk through your decision to frame the book as a social history of physicians specifically, which allowed you to avoid the very contemporary question of, “But does it work? Did it work?” I was wondering if you could speak to the pros and cons of that, because I really, really love what you've done here. I think there could easily be at least three more books needed to follow up, not necessarily by you.
Not by me. No, no. Yeah. And there will be, there will be many other books, I hope there will be many other books. It's such a good question, and it really is a question I get all the time. I'll take one step back and say, I also get that question of does it work? Like, I'll give this academic talk, and at the end, someone will say, “I have a rash? Do you think I should go see an herbalist?” I’m like, you should not get medical advice from me! I have a history PhD, what? Don't ask me these things! And worse, I’m a historian of the 19th century, I'm going to diagnose you with scrofula or something totally not of this era.
But, it is such a good question. I understand why people would want to know. So why did I not go that route, aside from feeling that I was not trained to make those kinds of judgments? Part of it is, I actually think as you go and you do research about just healers, right? People who are performing different kinds of healing practices in any capacity, it actually becomes very hard to know what they're actually doing, right? So sure, there are domestic healing manuals. You can find textbooks. You can find prescription pads where people are recording the formulation of what they're prescribing. But generally like that dialogue that happens with a healer, kind of in the space of an exam room, or the space of a back room, or a cave, or a tent, or like wherever that conversation is happening, wherever that practice is actually happening, is almost impossible to have a record of.
So I had this problem of the black box of the practice, actually not really knowing what was happening. I know of prescriptions that have been preserved. There are not a ton, but there are some. I do not have the language ability to read them. They are written in classical Chinese and often even people who are trained to read classical Chinese and who are themselves TCM practitioners don't recognize what's being written on there. Or they'll have a guess. They'll sort of take what's used in the modern era, and they'll be like, well, I think it might be this. So there's a lot of ambiguity even in the records that do exist.
And then there's another thing, which is what does it mean for it to work? What does it mean for it to be efficacious? That's historicized, too, because how you and I feel in 2022, I guess, right now, the expectation we have for what feeling good means is very different from someone who was living 140, 150, 500 years ago. The expectation of what it means for something to work is very different. So you might have lots of patient testimony that says, “He healed me, I've never been better.” What does that mean? Does that mean, you used to have, like, chronic, horrible digestive problems every day? Like terrible cramps, and you know, whatever, whatever, and now you only have it every other day? Or that it went away altogether?
So what is your expectation for what wellness means, and how do we generalize from something that's highly individualized and conditioned on the time and space and culture and environment of where you you are? How do we generalize from that particularity? So in the end, yeah, I totally sidestepped it. And I don't really regret it. Because one, I stayed in my lane, which I'm pretty big fan of staying in your lane. Left lots of space for people who want to write about efficacy to do so. I know of at least one book that's in the works right now that's about the clinical trials that were done of acupuncture in the United States in the 1970s. So I've kind of referenced it at the end of my book, but there's a PhD dissertation out of SUNY Stony Brook where this historian has gone on a really deep dive of these clinical trials, and their social contexts, but also the kind of the nitty technical details as well. There are other people who are interested in the sort of questions that will get more to questions of like, effect. I won't say efficacy, but kind of effect and practice.
And the question of how to measure the effect of something is so difficult and subjective. It actually reminds me of the quote you have from your grandmother in the acknowledgement section of your book, where she says, “Oh, when you throw up the medicine, that's how you know it's working.”
Yeah. That was a pretty low moment for me. But it's fair, that is exactly it, right? She had a sort of different expectation of what it meant for something to work, and it was that you purged yourself of it. I just have a cold. I don’t need to be vomiting, too.
Highly relatable preference. Well, on that note, it's been a real pleasure to learn more about your process. And thank you so much for this conversation today.
I really enjoyed reading your book. It was the first book that I've read about anything like this. So, super interesting. And thank you for answering all our questions today.
Thank you. This was so fun. I'm so glad that you're doing this podcast series and I can't wait to learn more from it. Take care. Bye bye.
For more on Dr. Venit-Shelton's work, or for any references mentioned in this interview, you can find the links provided with the interview transcript. Thanks for listening.
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