Curing Thousands of Diseases

One of the great privileges of working in The Parker Library is the opportunity to slowly discover the collections, to spend a few minutes looking at a manuscript whose shelfmark you don’t recognise, to talk to readers working on things you’ve never considered, to share in the excitement of new discoveries, and to learn just a little bit more about an item, bit by bit. One could spend a lifetime getting to know the collection, but even given many such lifetimes, there would still be many items that I will never even begin to understand; for now, they must remain filed away in memory, black holes sitting next to the tiny pinpricks of light that are connected to their neighbors on the shelves.

Every year we welcome the students from the Corpus Christi Medicine and English Summer School Program to The Parker Library. During each of these visits we give the participants a tour of our current exhibition and then bring out a few items that we believe may be of particular interests to the students that they are allowed to (gently) explore as we talk about the history of the book. This year, I was delighted to share MS 227, Curing Thousands of Diseases, an eight volume Chinese work that was printed in the 1660s, and one of my ‘black holes’.

MS 227, volumes 1 – 8

As I watched the students carefully begin to handle the volumes, and as they began to explain to me where to find the title (not that I can read it) and which order the volumes ought to arranged in, one student, Leo Marr, seemed absorbed in one volume in particular, snapping photos diligently with his camera phone. I could not have been more delighted when an email from him popped into my inbox a few days later containing a transcription and translation of a section of the text concerning the treatment of malaria that he had undertaken after his visit. Leo has given me permission to share his work here, and has written the introduction that precedes his transcription and translation below.

Curing Thousands of Diseases is a Chinese medical book written by Gong Tingxian in 1587. The book consists of eight volumes and Volume 1 is the introduction, discussing the link between sky, earth and people, yin and yang, the five elements, the functions of organs, the meridians of the body and the effects and properties of traditional Chinese medicines. The other parts of the book record 184 diseases involving internal medicine, surgery, gynecology, pediatrics, ophthalmology and otorhinolaryngology, discussing pathogenesis, mechanism, treatments, and prescriptions. Most of the prescriptions were created by the author and they are all precise and appropriate, some of which are still in use today. In the appendix there are poems dealing with medical ethics – Ten Rules for Doctors and Ten Rules for Patients, which both have great reference value.

MS 227, volume 3

The author, Gong Tingxian, was a famous doctor during the Ming Dynasty and was regarded as the preeminent doctor in his field. He was from a family of doctors, but, at first, he studied literature. Later, he studied under his father and successfully mastered all the knowledge his father imparted. He was highly knowledgeable and composed many of medical books, which cover a wide range of medical knowledge including diagnostics, herbology, surgery, etc. For instance, the earliest record of treating syphilis with arsenic drugs is found in his book, and he pointed out that syphilis was infectious. He also summarized the properties of medicines in the form of poems, which are easy to memorize.

The translation below is a small section of the book concerning the mechanism and treatment of malaria. Some of the theories of traditional Chinese medicine are not easy to explain, but I consulted my teachers to make the translation as simple and precise as I can. Nevertheless, there still may be some mistakes, and I welcome any suggestions.




Malaria (Excerpt)

Curing Thousands of Diseases Volume 3

MS 227: the section concerning Malaria begins in the upper right-hand corner, and is read right to left until the end of the third column from the right on the left hand side of the opening above.

Malaria is a disease caused by the wind-cool, summer heat and damp from the outside, and improper diet and tiredness inside, or hunger, crapulence, sexual desire, which all lead to the disharmony between spleen and stomach, and sputum[1] gathers in the middle of stomach duct and abdomen. So if there is no sputum, there is no malaria. Spleen and stomach belong to the earth of the five elements, it’s like delivering letters, which should arrive on time. If the routine is forced to change, either earlier or later, the pathogen will be released and make one sensitive to malaria. When one is infected with malaria, one keeps yawning and feels a chill, followed by cold hands and feet, shiver, high fever, thirst, headache, sore waist and hip joints. Sometimes heat follows cold[2] and sometimes on the contrary, sometimes there is only heat or cold. Sometimes more cold and sometimes more heat. If there is only one paroxysm a day, it is not serious and will be easily cured. If there is paroxysm every other day, or a paroxysm lasts two days and then followed by a gap day, it is hard to recover. For those who have no sweat on the skin, the treatment should mainly based on Exorcism Soup. For those who have sweat, Qi[3] Healing Soup will be better. For those who are in the middle, Common Goldenrop and Five Lings[4] Soup will be better. For a patient still dividing yin and yang, use ginseng to recover the stomach and then stop the division. If a patient vomits yellow jelly-like liquid after taking the stopping medicine, he will recover soon. But pay attention not to stop days earlier, which will stop the pathogen from getting out and get worse, and not to stopping later, which makes the vigour decline and leads to weakness. It should be stopped on the third or fourth day of the treatment. Patients should not start to eat and drink normally until there is no fever. If not, there is the possibility that the disease will not recede and cause flatulence, which is also called the product of malaria. In some cases this leads to abdominal distension.

— Leo Marr 马云龙

Medical School of Soochow University 苏州大学医学部

— Anne McLaughlin

Sub-Librarian, The Parker Library

[1] In traditional Chinese medical theory, sputum is the product of the water circulation disorder, which means the dampness in the body gather and that makes sputum.

[2] Heat and cold are like two sorts of symptoms according to the ancient Chinese medical theory.

[3] Qi is like some kind of energy in one’s body.

[4] Five lings is the combination of poria cocos, atractylodes atractylodes, rhizoma alisma and cassia twig. They are all traditional Chinese medicines.

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