(1518 – 1593)

As home to the oldest continuous medical system in the world, China has over the last two millennia, mastered innovative methodologies and produced outstanding practitioners of oriental medicine. Most notable of these is Li Shizhen, an ingenious polymath, who advanced pharmaceutics and pharmacology. He spent nearly 30 years researching on various therapeutic choices and alternatives. In the process, he revolutionized pharmacognosy by isolating and classifying hundreds of medicinal herbs. Details of these were published in his magnum opus titled Bencao Gangmu (which is known in Latin as Compendium Materia Medica). This 53-volume book boasts of about 1,900 entries: containing nearly 1,100 herbs whose respective characteristics, clinical uses, and side-effects were detailed. These combined to make it the most voluminous and the most comprehensive publication in the entire history of Traditional Chinese Medicine. But apart from that, Li Shizhen ensured that Bencao Gangmu remains a treasure trove of scientific information by augmenting it with sections that dealt with biology, chemistry, astronomy, geology and minerology. All these explain why it remains one of the oldest encyclopedias still in use. It is available in over twenty languages; and could be found in every continent of the world. His other published works are on metallurgy, acupuncture and nutrition. Among other things, Li Shizhen is remembered as one of the first medical practitioners to study and understand gallstones. He is also noted for being among the first clinicians who realized the significance of Ephedra sinica as nasal decongestant. (Ephedra is the plant genus from which ephedrine is derived).

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