Chinese Medicine helped influenza pandemic in America one hundred years ago
COVID‑19 pandemic in 2020 is a century catastrophe, which caused over 12.5 million positive cases confirmed while the death toll climbed over 560 thousand (as of July 12, 2020) in the world. A similar memory dated back to the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic which caused a total of 50 million deaths. Chinese medicine has successfully been applied to combating COVID‑19 pandemic in China, and the therapeutic outcome was significant during the pandemic period, the first quarter of 2020. A few people knew that Chinese medicine was also applied to combating epidemic a hundred years ago in the United States. One book on my library shelves introduced this story about a Chinese herbalist, Doc Hay, during that time in the America West. The title of this book is China Doctor in John Day, which was published by Binford and Mort Publishers in 1979. Jeffery Barlow and Christine Richardson were the authors.
As an immigrant, a Chinese herbalist, Ing “Doc” Hay, he came to the States as a laborer, but he had knowledge of Chinese herbal medicine due to his family heritage. This made it possible for him to start practicing in the Chinese community in John Day, Oregon, until 1948 when he retired. During the time of the pandemic running wild in the 1910s, he prescribed formulas aimed at flu and boiled herbal decoction, personally delivering it to a working site for those Chinese laborers as well as non‑Chinese patients. None of the laborer patients treated by him died during this deadly pandemic. Due to his success and fame, his practice was booming even after the Chinese community disappeared in John Day in later years. Doc Hay is always remembered in the history of earlier development in eastern Oregon, so that the site of his practicing, Kam Wah Chung and Co. Building, is now a national historic landmark. And more importantly, he has also been remembered by Chinese herbal medicine practitioners in the United States.
The 1918–1919 influenza pandemic was the most severe disaster in the world history in the beginning of the 20th century. One‑fifth of the world’s population was affected by this deadly H1N1 virus. At least 50 million people had died worldwide, including approximately 550,000 in the United States. When this influenza appeared in the United States in the fall of 1918, many cities shut down their essential services.
The pandemic was widely spread to both urban and rural areas both in the densely populated East Coast and in the remotest part of Alaska. In Oregon, the situation was also serious. Death certificates held by the Oregon State Archives document thousands of influenza deaths from 1918 to 1919. During that time in the John Day area of the eastern Oregon, the highway construction was on the progress, which connected the mountain passing through the north and southwest of the Grant County. It was tough work in that the roads were unpacked and dirt and it was extremely cold in winter, <22°F (Note: −22°F equals to −30°C) in John Day. People worried about the flu which could hit together with spring rains; thus, the road construction could be on hold for another year, then the funds would be exhausted.
Doc Hay delightedly got involved in epidemic combating. He made a prescription and then personally boiled herbal decoction. When it was ready, he even delivered those herbal decoctions together with his partner Lung On to the working site for fellow laborers. The laborers were among the flu hit hardest age group and the road work project really relied on them.
We do not know the composition of the herbal formula, but we do know that it worked very well. Recently, it has become popular to take Chinese herbal teas or premade granules as prevention during the flu epidemic. However, Doc Hay was already practicing this way one century ago. It is clear that his herbal formula was not only effective for prevention but also for treatment. The book mentions, “Though many of the men fell ill with the flu, none became bedridden and all continued to work.” It is said that in the 1918 and 1919 flu epidemic, none of Doc hay’s patients and his community died. Thanks largely to Doc Hay and his “bitter brew,” the highway was completed in the schedule that was indeed good news to the eastern Oregon.
In 2014, Robert Wah, M.D., the grandson of Bob Wah, Iny Hay’s nephew, was elected the 169th President of American Medical Association, the largest association of physicians in the United States. As one of the top leaders of medical profession, Dr. Robert Wah was the only one Chinese–American who once led this organization in its 173 years of history.
Chinese medicine has been applied to combating COVID-19 pandemic, with successful clinical outcome and been supported by multiple evidence, most of them have been reported in English academic journals. I hope in the future, if a similar coronal virus pandemic happens again, American people can have easy access to Chinese Medicine, with better prognosis and less suffering.
1. Chen Y. Doc hay: A Chinese herbalist combated the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic in America. Chin Med Cult 2020;3:133-7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9009841/
2. Robert Wah, MD. https://www.healthit.gov/hitac/member/wah