Friday, January 11, 2008

Reminiscences of Chinese medicine in rural Oregon

Historical Collections & Archives here at OHSU has become the repository for materials--both print and electronic--collected as part of the ongoing history of medicine in Oregon project (sponsored by the Oregon Medical Education Foundation, with support from the Oregon Medical Association, The Foundation for Medical Excellence, OHSU and the Oregon Historical Society). We have partnered on some oral history interviews in the past, and are now starting to receive transcripts of interviews conducted solely for the OMEF project.

Today, I received the transcript for an interview with Edward Wah, D.M.D., Portland dentist and relative of "Doc Hay," a Chinese herbalist who practiced in rural John Day, OR, in the first half of the 20th century. When Hay's longtime partner, Lung On, passed away, Wah's father (who was Hay's nephew) joined Hay in John Day. The interview provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of Oriental medicine in the rural West. Some snippets (the interviewer is Janet Worthington):

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Worthington: You mentioned that you were distant relatives of Doc Hay. Was your father a nephew of his?

Wah: Yes, he was a nephew. The only relative that they could find. I don’t know of any other relative here in the States of Doc Hay. So he went back there and took care of him. And my dad also had knowledge of herbs, Chinese herbs. So it was almost natural that he later on took over Doc Hay’s herbal practice. He was able to read the herbal books, and he had, as I said, early knowledge of herbs already.
But Doc Hay taught him the art of doing pulse diagnosis, which was fascinating. I thought that was one of the things that I wish I had the ability to do. They’d come in, the patients would come in, not saying a thing about their symptoms. And they’d sit down and you’d take their pulse and feel for about maybe three, four minutes. And then at the end of that time, they would tell the patient what was wrong with them. Instead of the patient telling them what their symptoms were. And oftentimes, if they’d had previous surgeries, he was able to pick up where the surgery was and what the surgery was. So it was a fascinating art.

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[Talking about the Kam Wah Chung building in which Doc Hay had his practice]

Worthington: And what about the upstairs?

Wah: We weren’t able to go up there. That was a locked area, and off limits, too. So I have yet to go up there and see what it’s like. I’ve never set foot up there.

Worthington: Did you hear anything from anyone about what it was used for?

Wah: [laughs] No. All I heard was it’s another storage area with a sand floor or something, and they had a lot of the whiskey bottles and everything hidden in the sand. Because it was during Prohibition days that they did all this. And I guess they must have found something like forty or sixty bottles of real good whiskey and bourbon. [laughs] I think they even took some and auctioned them off for fundraisers and so forth, I heard.

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Worthington: Consistently when we talked to people who had been patients of his, or whose families had been patients, they seemed to feel that he was a miracle worker. That what he did was just beyond what anyone could hope for.

Wah: That’s what it seemed like, you know, because he did have so much success in these areas where everything else failed.

Worthington: And what areas, particularly, do you think he was really good in?

Wah: Oh, my goodness. I don’t know. I think one of the areas was breast cancer. That was a piece of cake. He had these herbs that he would put a poultice on the affected area, and would draw out the bad tissue, and it would heal up and that was the end of it.

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