Miasma and Materia Medica in Early Modern Asia

Saturday, January 7, 2017: 1:30 PM
Mile High Ballroom 4C (Colorado Convention Center)
Kathlene T. Baldanza, Penn State University
The Chinese pharmacologist Tu Youyou won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her research in anti-malarial drugs, work first initiated in the 1960s to save disease-ravaged North Vietnamese soldiers. She approached her task by testing drugs mentioned in ancient materia medicas, the most famous of which is the magisterial late-sixteenth century Bencao gangmu. As I show in this paper, Tu was hardly the first Chinese expert to apply pharmacological knowledge to critical military use, especially in wars waged in the unhealthily “miasmic” southern climate. Nor does the twentieth-century mark the first cooperation between China and Vietnam on finding remedies for disease. I argue that the borderlands between the two states were seen as both a source of contagion and a storehouse of medicine. Studying the medicinal properties of local plants and animals in order to discover remedies for local diseases was vital to the imperial expansion of both states. I trace the circulation of medical knowledge and techniques from medical texts, to Vietnamese reading aids and dictionaries, to generals and officials applying this knowledge in the field. I focus on the dissemination of the Bencao gangmu, whose detailed prescriptions were cited in military texts and imperial records in both China and Vietnam for nearly three centuries.
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