Li Shizhen, (1518-1593), was a Han Chinese medical doctor, scientist, pharmacologist, herbalist and acupuncturist of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), whose major contribution to clinical medicine was his 27-year work, the Compendium of Materia Medica. He is considered to be China’s greatest scientific naturalist.
The Compendium is a medical text of 1,892 entries, with details about more than 1,800 Chinese medicinal drugs , 1,100 illustrations and 11,000 prescriptions. It also describes type, form, flavor, nature and application in disease treatments of 1,094 herbs, has been translated into many languages, and remains as the premier reference work for herbal medicine. The treatise includes various related subjects such as botany, zoology, mineralogy, and metallurgy.
Shizhen wrote eleven other books, including Pin-hu Mai-hsueh, or "A Study of the Pulse.” His father, a traditional physician, scholar and author of several influential publications, encouraged his son to seek a government position. After failing the national civil service exam three times, Shizhen turned to medicine under the tutelage of his father. At 38, as a practicing physician, he cured the son of the Prince of Chu and was invited to be an official there. Shizhen received a prestigious government post as Assistant President at the Imperial Medical Institute in Beijing several years later.
The physician avidly read many rare medical texts, noting the disorder, mistakes, and conflicting information that created serious problems in most publications of the time. His Compendium of Materia Medica was intended to provide correct information within a logical system of organization. During the research process, he traveled extensively, gained first-hand experience with many herbs and local remedies and consulted virtually every medical book then in print. His Compendium bibliography lists over 900 other published manuscripts.
Li Shizhen was one of the first to recognize gallstones, use ice to bring down a fever, and fumigants to prevent the spread of infection. He also emphasized preventative medicine, stating that; “To cure disease is like waiting until one is thirsty before digging a well...”