The Kam Wah Chung museum in rural Oregon features a rare herbal collection from a Chinese doctor that practiced from the 1860s to the 1920s.  On February 4th (5-7 pm PST), I have the honor to give a presentation with the esteemed Dr. Beth Howlett on the Chinese herbs found in Kam Wah Chung. The lecture is a fundraiser to support the Oregon Association of Acupuncturists, please join us!

The Kam Wah Chung collection is like a time capsule from the Gold Rush era, with all the objects and herbs perfectly preserved. I was introduced to the museum by Beth Howlett while she was doing her capstone research at OCOM on Kam Wah Chung, and I was fortunate to have the chance to systematically investigate the herbs in the collection while I was working on my PhD.

During the past few years, a remarkable series of events unfolded at Kam Wah Chung. My PhD supervisor from Hong Kong, Prof. Zhao Zhongzhen, was delighted to discover Kam Wah Chung, and he brought a team of experts from Asia to visit the museum. Later on, Prof. Zhao inspired the Discovery Channel and a Chinese TV producer to tell the tale of KWC to the world. They interviewed Beth Howlett and the museum curator, and we had the chance to dive deep into the archives. Finally, Beth helped facilitate a grant from the State Library of Oregon and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which allowed this rare collection to open up to the world in an online format.

My love for Kam Wah Chung runs deep. In addition to Kam Wah Chung, I had the opportunity to investigate several historical collections of Chinese herbs in the UK and Holland while I was doing my PhD research. We were able to access a collection of Chinese herbs acquired in the 1700s in the Natural History Museum of London, along with some phenomenal samples of Chinese herbs that were stored in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in the outskirts of London. The Kew collection contained an entire set of nearly 600 herbs that were collected from Chinese herbal pharmacies in peninsular Malaysia in the 1920s, and I was able to research specimens of Mu Tong, Xi Xin, and Fang Ji that were collected in China, Japan, and Malaysia in the 1800s and early 1900s.

The specimens in Kam Wah Chung gave us another reference point to investigate how herbs from the late 1800s and early 1900s compare to the herbs that we use today. In some cases, the samples have great significance for clarifying enduring questions in Chinese herbal pharmacy.

In particular, the Kam Wah Chung collection helps to clarify the historical situation regarding individual herbs that are prone to confusion or substitution. In the modern era, practitioners in the USA often encounter substitute species when purchasing herbs such as Zi Cao, Ban Lan Gen, and Wang Bu Liu Xing from Chinese herbal shops. In some cases, this confusion is related to customary regional substitutes; in other cases, substitutes are related to changes in natural resources or confusion in nomenclature. The KWC collection shows that many of the same herbs that are confused on the American market today were also prone to confusion in Chinese herbal pharmacies in America a century ago.

Historical collections provide material evidence that helps to clarify facts that could otherwise only be inferred via textual sources. For example, my teacher’s teacher, Prof. Xie Zongwan, was a materia medica scholar who aimed to clarify historical changes in Chinese herbal medicines. Armed with a thorough understanding of botany, pharmacognosy, and traditional Chinese medicine, Prof. Xie and his colleagues embarked upon on a thorough investigation of the bencao literature to investigate which Latin species were regarded as authentic sources of Chinese medicines across various dynastic periods. In our own work, we were able to validate some of the conclusions of this textual research with material evidence by investigating specimens from the 1800s to early 1900s that were preserved in Europe and North America.  

The specimens preserved in the Kam Wah Chung museum were particularly valuable for evaluating historical changes in medicinal processing (pao zhi), as well as herbs that are prone to regional substitution. Additionally, the KWC collection offers valuable insights into the historical situation of herbs that may contain aristolochic acids, such as mu tong, fang ji and xi xin.

In this webinar, we will be embarking on a visual tour of interesting specimens from Kam Wah Chung. Beth Howlett is a true expert on the Kam Wah Chung collection, so don’t miss this chance to hear her speak! During my part of the lecture, I’ll be using examples from the collection to discuss historical changes, easily confused herbs, and enduring issues in Chinese herbal pharmacy.

100% of all contributions will go to support the Oregon Association of Acupuncturists.

Here is the official event link:

Uncovering an Oregon Treasure: Kam Wah Chung