Chinese Herbal Medicine: The Formulas of Dr John H F Shen
Chinese Herbal Medicine: The Formulas of Dr John H F Shen Leon I Hammer, Hamilton Rotte Published by Thieme, 2012 Hardback. 312pp. ISBN 978-3-13-150071-7 Price: £81.99
(Reviewed by Charlie Buck, EJOM Vol. 7 No. 3)
Only a few decades ago the number of masterful Chinese medicine teachers available to us in Europe was very small, and if you were interested in Chinese herbs that figure was quite close to zero. Various attributes help define mastery; decades of busy practice, real familiarity with the ideas behind the historical medical tradition and a maverick thinking style are some of these. Trained in pre-communist Shanghai in the 1930’s the late Dr John Shen had these qualities in spades. When he flew from New York to lecture in Europe we came in droves in the hope that some wisdom would rub off on us. Frankly though, we struggled to make sense of his teachings – his words and ideas were very idiosyncratic. Dr Shen would ask a few questions, take the pulse, examine the insides of a patient’s eyelids and then confidently bark out his diagnoses; qi is chaotic!, Blood is unclear!, organ nerves are tight! Like a stage cold reading act he would then tell patients their own lives, “When you were small child you had bad shock – that was the start of this problem” or, “When you were twenty you changed your eating habits, this is why you sleep badly now you are forty”. Patient dissent was not permitted! “Oh yes you did, you just forgot!”
Outsiders might be forgiven for thinking we were at the feet of a charlatan but we sensed there was something real here. A few times I referred tricky patients for Dr Shen to see and his mastery was evident, even in the arrogance of youth I could see that his herb formula writing was far more stylish than mine. After months treating a chronic asthmatic bronchitis patient with big, complicated and ineffective formulas, Dr Shen prescribed a two- herb formula that simply paired dong chong xia cao with chuan bei mu, making me look like a complete idiot.
The Formulas of Dr John H F Shen has been compiled from notes taken by his followers in the U.S. – primarily Dr Leon Hammer. It consists of a collection of Dr Shen’s herb formulas that has been annotated by Leon Hammer and Hamilton Rotte and filled out with some of his clinical tricks – such as eyelid diagnosis. Hammer’s focus is on explaining Dr Shen’s ideas whilst Rotte offers basic interpretations of the formulas. Many of the distinctive concepts are now made plain making this book the Rosetta Stone needed to understand Dr Shen’s style. Some 250 conditions are discussed, including; Heart small, blue-green colour around the mouth in adults, nervous system tense, Blood unclear, organ nerves tight, prone to inappropriate laughter. Numerous more standard conditions in terms of Chinese medicine and biomedicine are here too such as psoriasis, uterine bleeding due to fibroids, high cholesterol – literally hundreds.
Many of the formulas are variations on the standard repertoire; his formula for prone to sudden rage, for instance, is loosely based on jia wei xiao yao san with some stylish additions such as bai ji li, xiang fu and mei gui hua. This is a good way to learn jia jian – elegant prescription tweaking. Some formulas are more obscure in origin but we sense a style that draws on a wide reading of the classical tradition, indeed the whole gamut of classical styles can be discerned in his style. Dr Shen’s formulas for some conditions, such as psoriasis, appear to be contemporary ones suggesting that he continued to study the modern literature. We get a strong sense that these treatments were specifically intended to work, as if their author was putting the full force of his intellect behind them – like a practitioner who genuinely cares for his patients. Bringing extra life to the book are numerous simple clinical tips such as his use of ginger baths for patients with Cold Damp bi-syndrome (yes, I tried it and can say it brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘hot in bed’!). Many of these tips will be useful to acupuncturists too.
Leon Hammer has championed Dr Shen’s ideas for decades, especially his distinctive pulse diagnosis style detailed in his Chinese Pulse Diagnosis (Eastland 2001). Dr Shen himself published a slim book of his ideas (Chinese Medicine;1980) but this new Thieme text offers by far the most engaging and understandable insight into the masterful medical mind of the delightful and maverick Dr John Shen.
Charlie Buck Charlie Buck has enjoyed three decades in the world of Chinese medicine and was one of the very first to practise Chinese herbal medicine in the UK. As an author and educator he has made significant contributions to the development of Chinese medicine in the UK and Europe. Rooted equally in both classical Chinese medical scholarship and in science, Charlie’s teaching has been described as lucid, engaging and insightful. He is currently chair of the British Acupuncture Council.