From the Collections: Supporting Student Research

From the Collections is a recurring feature at aihp.org that highlights articles, artifacts, images, and other items of interest from AIHP publications and collections. This post is contributed by Susie Seefelt Lesieutre, AIHP’s Collections Associate.

As work begins on the National Endowment for the Humanities grant awarded earlier this year, the historical collections in the AIHP Kremers Reference Files continue to support and inform other critical projects as well, such as student-led inquiry and research. One such project is being conducted by JJ Strange, a PhD student in the University of Wisconsin-Madison History of Science, Medicine and Technology program. Strange is studying the work of Chinese students that attended the UW-Madison School of Pharmacy in the early 20th century.

Ms. Strange notes that research on Chinese contributions to pharmacy published in English has tended to overlook these students, while that published in Chinese considers only the more famous scholars. She says that UW-Madison was well-known to Chinese students, but their stories have largely been left out of official institutional histories, and she wants to “get these accomplished students back into the narrative.”

Many of the materials that Strange is studying are letters exchanged between students and Professor Edward Kremers, then director of the UW-Madison pharmacy course. Many of the letters, mostly written between the 1920s and the early 1940s, discuss the pharmaceutical work students undertook after graduating.

In one letter, dated 19 November 1928, Dr. S.Y. Chen, who was living in New York City at the time, writes to Kremers about life in the city and the pharmaceutical work he had done over the summer. Chen didn’t care for the fast pace of life in the city, writing, “For some unknown reasons the New York life is so peculiar that [it] makes people restless, hurry, and without getting enough time to do what they should. I am one of the victims.”

He then goes on to talk about his visit that summer to H.K. Mulford and Company in Philadelphia, where he says he toured laboratories and a botanical garden operated jointly by the Mulford Company and the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy. He mentions their robust production of insulin and their preparation of Lactobacillus acidophilus, which they preserved in chocolate candies, a novel technique that intrigued him. He ends by noting his continuing work with the Denver Chemical Manufacturing Co. in New York City where he was connected to the “Chinese department.” (Click this link for a complete copy of Mr. Chen’s letter.)

Despite the high degree of formality with which these letters were written, a deep regard and affection is nevertheless conveyed between the students and Kremers. Students discuss their current work, but they also share personal news such as marriages and the birth of children. Kremers responds with a great deal of interest in their work and personal milestones, and he often ends his letters by posing a question to prompt further scientific inquiry. In his reply to Chen, written on 24 November 1928, Kremers closes with: “What can you tell me about the bactericidal properties of shikimic acid?”

Strange notes that as she continues to research these students’ work, she’s particularly interested in calling attention to traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a medical practice the students would have been very familiar with. TCM was not accessible to American pharmacy at the time, however, as it did not translate will conceptually and linguistically into western styles of documenting scientific analysis. She states that students like S.Y. Chen, K.K. Chen, and M.H. Chou endeavored to make TCM comprehensible to western practitioners through chemical analysis and experimentation. She states that “this is why we have ephedrine, which was derived from a Chinese plant called Ma Huang.” Strange, who is fluent in Mandarin, adds that as she continues her dissertation project, she will inspect Chinese-language sources in the collection, as well.

Strange’s study will greatly advance our understanding of the groundbreaking pharmaceutical research conducted by these Chinese students, and the global impact of their work. As she selects resources from the AIHP collections to view and study, AIHP staff are scanning the materials, which may eventually be included in an online exhibit to create access for a wider audience. AIHP is thrilled to support the work of student researchers like Strange and anticipates more such cooperative efforts going forward.

Posted: November 16, 2022

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