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A Tale of Success and Exchange

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

The Stories of Chinese Pharmacy Students in the Early 20th Century at the University of Wisconsin


Despite being thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean, at the turn of the 20th century, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Pharmacy became a hotspot for Chinese students interested in researching medicinal plants in China. Under the advisement of Dr. Edward Kremers, these Chinese students brought their knowledge of medicine to American pharmaceutical research with a broader goal of equalizing China and its traditional knowledge on an international stage.


The story of UW-Madison Chinese pharmacy students began in 1905 when the United States and the Qing empire negotiated a scholarship for Chinese citizens to complete their college education at a U.S. university. The Boxer Indemnity Scholarship offered a two-fold opportunity, first for Chinese students to travel and be educated in western studies or xixue (what you and I might call STEM), and second for the US, it was a way of influencing Chinese citizens to have a favorable outlook towards future American trade and diplomatic endeavors.


As a Ph.D. student studying the history of science in China at UW-Madison, I was immediately pointed to different archives across campus to track down some of the people I had identified in Chinese newspapers. The early twentieth century was a unique time in Chinese and American diplomatic relations. Many of the students who spent some time abroad, with a large contingent arriving in the U.S. – and UW-Madison – went on to change the Chinese university system, science research, and government.


Within the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy, a series of archival folders, objects, and newspapers told a vibrant story of the Chinese students who trained at the pharmacy school. While not every student can be featured, I have drawn together a group of students who balanced the weight of the Chinese nation’s push for a modern future and the diplomatic hopes of the USA.


Some students, like Dr. K.K. Chen 陳克恢, would make a name for themselves in American history books. Chen spent much of his time in the School of Pharmacy researching the effects of ephedrine, a drug derived from Ma Huang (a Chinese plant that had been in use for over a thousand years), in treating lung diseases, such as asthma and bronchitis.

While Chen was not the first to synthesize the compound, he is credited with bringing it to the attention of American pharmaceutical manufacturers, changing the landscape, and introducing traditional Chinese medicine on a global, biochemical scale. He later attended medical school at Johns Hopkins, settling in Indiana for thirty years and retiring in California. He remained in contact with the School of Pharmacy until he died in 1988.


Newspaper article about K. K. Chen from 1923.



A newpaper article about Chinese pharmacy students at UW-Madison, featuring a headshot of MH Chou

Newspaper article featuring M. H. Chou


Another student, who made himself known for his political activism, is Ming-Heng Chou 周明衡. He was a contemporary of Chen and worked on the medical properties of star anise, an herb you might know from Chinese food recipes named for its shape and strong aroma, but instead of making a medical impact, he used his platform to connect Chinese students throughout the campus and country.


M.H. Chou (as he was often stylized) worked to advocate for issues surrounding China’s standing in the world and the treatment of Chinese students on campus. His accomplishments included participating in the Chinese Student Club, the International Club, and the editing board for the Chinese Student Monthly, a national newsletter connected to the growing Chinese student population in the United States. These organizations pushed for Chinese exchange students to have a community and gave them a space to discuss political issues important to their group.


On the other hand, S.Y. Chen (陳思議) is not as well known in America as his above counterparts, but he founded the first biochemical-based pharmaceutical school in China, the National School of Pharmacy (國立藥學專科學校). The school taught techniques and theories common in Euro-American pharmacy rather than traditional Chinese medicine, a practice based on a series of canonical texts and practices, some of which were written in antiquity.


He and Kremers remained in close contact through letters. In many of his letters, Chen mentioned his ongoing research in biochemically understanding Chinese medicinal plants, and he often exchanged specimens with Kremers for continued research. The only notable disruption to these letters was in 1937, when Chen fled from China’s coast towards the interior, running from the invading Japanese (World War II for China began nearly a decade before America entered the Pacific War).


He and his pharmacy school landed in Chongqing, where he hired other Chinese students trained in Euroamerican-style pharmaceutical techniques, such as Ju-chi’ang Liu (劉汝強), a later-generation Chinese exchange student. Kremers often lamented in his letters to Chen the devastation of war and wished for a swift end to the fighting.


A headshot of S. Y. Chen



A photo of Sui-Che Chen


Beyond the impacts of student and faculties’ relationships, the School of Pharmacy’s Chinese student population felt the repercussions of the war – the only woman in the Chinese student AIHP materials, Shui-Che Chen, began her work at the pharmacy school in 1937; however, in 1939, she received word her father had been killed during an attack by the Japanese. She sold all her belongings to return home to China, which The Capital Times reported on over the course of several months in morbid detail. These articles often described her despondent moods and tragic story, along with exoticizing the dresses and jewelry she sold to buy a ticket home. Though she did not complete her studies, she remained in contact with Kremers and became a teacher in the Yunan region close to the Vietnam border.


Though many of the people featured in the AIHP collection took different paths in life, by working through the materials, one thing became abundantly clear — working on Chinese medicine using pharmaceutical techniques was a matter of national pride. One article in Chinese Chemist and Druggist by Yunjian “William” Yang explained the supposed deficit in understanding: Chinese medicine did not have chemistry-based research to validate the practice; thus, when Chinese drugs were on an international market, they were not identified as Chinese but rather associated with the isolated chemicals (Dec. 1924 p. 23). At no point were these Chinese students looking to abandon traditional Chinese medicine for a different kind of pharmaceutical tradition, but rather, they endeavored to make the medicine of their country accessible to the chemically-based American markets.


This pride toward Chinese pharmaceuticals is also reflected in K.K. Chen’s writing.

“It is worth noting that opium, which has become a curse to China, is not sold in drug shops and toxic substances such as arsenic, nux vomica, croton seeds and so forth cannot be purchased at any price except by prescription of a physician. This is in sharp contrast with “modern” pharmacies in China, in which morphine preparations and other narcotics can always be purchased under some fancy name” (Annals of Medical History, 1929, p. 104).

This small but robust collection of materials in the AIHP reveals a tight-knit community of Chinese pharmacy students, many of whom stayed in contact with Kremers and each other long after they’d left Madison. These students arrived, initially carrying the hopes and dreams of the burgeoning Chinese nation and coming to UW-Madison as strangers who, in time, would become political activists, doctors, and teachers during a complicated time for China. While the archive can not provide details of every Chinese student who passed through Madison’s campus, their legacy remains — these students changed the School of Pharmacy and the American pharmaceutical industry. These findings beg U.S. and Chinese specialist historians to dig deeper into the nearly one-hundred-and-fifty-year-long interaction between Chinese students and US universities, a diplomatic endeavor often overshadowed by modern-day political agendas.


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