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Friday, July 3, 2015

206-220 A.D.: Quack Chinese doctors kill people

If you had asthma in Ancient China in the 3rd century A.D. you had access to some rational treatment for your asthma, most significantly Ma Huang, which was an asthma remedy discovered for the west at the beginning of the 19th century. It's a medicine almost as potent as epinephrine with the ability of quickly ending an asthma attack.
Yet chances are you were very hesitent to see a doctor. Some historians speculate, based on writings from the era, the Chinese feared physicians.

According to Plinio Prioreschi, in his 1991 book "A History of Medicine:
Little is known about the social position of physicians in the earlier times. We know that later, and throughout Chinese history, they were often the object of derision and scorn. In the Spring and Autumn Annals of the State of Lu (one of the feudal states in which Confucius was born in 551 B.C.), for example, we read: (Physicians) employed poisonous drugs to expel diseases, hence ancients despised and assigned them a low position in society.
Prioreschi listed many ancient proverbs that show the inferiority of doctors, such as:
  • Doctors cannot cure their own complaints. (Huai an Tsu)
  • What the doctor says is all right, but what he sells is false.(Proverb)
  • Quack doctors kill people (proverb)
  • Do not take medicine compounded by a doctor who is not backed by the experience of three generations.
  • Medicine does not kill; the physicians kill (Proverb)
  • To take no medicine is the best cure. (Proverb)
However, some debate that doctors were held to such a low status in China. Some believe these were just proverbs warning people to be careful, and not to seek medicine if they could resolve their medical problems on their own with household remedies.

If you lived in Ancient China during the Han Dynasties of 206-220 A.D. you would have been wise to be wary of quack medicine, although you'd also be wise to seek a doctor who was knowledgeable of the medicine called Ma Huang. 

Hopefully you'd learn to find the plant yourself, to prepare it into a powder, and to mix it into a tea to drink when your asthma acted up.

  1. Prioreschi, plinia, "A History of Medicine," volume I "Primitive and Ancient Medicine," 1991, The Edwin Mellen Press, New York, chapter II, pages 124-5
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