Saturday, April 29, 2017

Y for Yi Shuo: Female Scientists Before Our Time

Post Card art-W. Han Dynasty
Sometime during the Chinese Western Han Dynasty two thousand years ago, in the eastern region of China near the Yellow River, lived a famous woman doctor named Yi Shuo. From an early age, Yi had a keen interest in herbal medicine and was determined to learn more. She questioned the doctors passing through her town, slowly growing in her knowledge. By the time she was a teenager, she knew where to look for herbs in the mountains and how to pound them into a pulp for treatment of her villager's wounds and injuries.

One story tells of Yi's ability to treat dropsy (today known as edema). A patient arrived at her door seeking help with abdominal dropsy. Her protruding belly was larger than that of a pregnant woman, and yet she was wasted and thin elsewhere in her body and struggled to breathe. After a thorough examination, Yi pulled out her supply of silver needles and began pricking the woman’s belly and legs. Medicine powder was applied to the woman’s navel next and a band of silk soaked in hot water was wrapped around her belly. A final treatment of medicinal food was fed to the patient.

A few days passed. The patient’s dropsy had reduced noticeably and within ten days she was up and about and her old self again. Word spread of Yi’s ability, eventually reaching the Emperor Wu of Han himself. Impressed with Yi’s medical skills, he promptly gave her a position in the palace and made her the Imperial Doctor. From that time forward, Yi’s responsibility was to treat and oversee the health of the Empress dowager (or Empress Mother), who it is said, “deeply trusted” Yi.

In general, medicine during the Han Dynasty was based on the belief that forces of nature affecting the universe also affected the human body. A body out of balance (yin and yang) required medicine to counteract the balance. Organs of the body were associated with one of five phases (Earth, Wood, Fire, Metal and Water). 

To function properly, the phases needed to be in harmony. If illness showed up in a particular organ, it was a sign that qi (or vital energy) had been disturbed. In the case of Yi’s patient, her Earth phase would have been out of whack. Yi might have prescribed a diet, considered moxibustion (burning moxa on or near a person's skin as a counter irritant), suggested calisthenics, and/or administered acupuncture, which she did with the silver needles.



  1. This was just great to read, all this going on so long ago.
    Thanks for sharing this with us Sharon.


  2. Very informative!It's great to know that women were so ahead of their times.


    1. The Emperor must have thought so too. Thanks for visiting!

  3. Hi Sharon - what an interesting story ... and thank you for putting the map up which highlights where the Han Dynasty 'ruled' ... we are learning more and more about Chinese pre-history ... and their achievements ... cheers Hilary

    1. Hmm. There were only two Asians to document. Surely there were more!

  4. She sounds like Mother Nature incarnated, so in tune she was .. thanks so much Sharon -

  5. Sharon,

    I think medicine of yesteryear while primitive and outdated by today's standards I believe that many illnesses were successfully treated but I kinda doubt it would result in a good outcome today. We have too many toxins to combat disguised as some medical condition that only a doctor can pronounce. This woman sounded amazing!

    Art Sketching Through the Alphabet “Y”


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You could call me an eternal optimist, but I'm really just a dreamer. l believe in dream fulfillment, because 'sometimes' dreams come true. This is a blog about my journey as a writer and things that inspire and motivate me.