Pharmacy archives reveal stories of early students from China

J.J. Strange will offer a “meet the curator” talk at noon February 17 on her new display about early Chinese pharmacy students at UW-Madison.

by Laurie Dennis

A combination of serendipity and knowing what to look for led history of science graduate student J.J. Strange to a treasure trove of materials about some of the first students from China to study pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“There was a vague awareness that we had good information on early Chinese students, especially K.K. Chen,” said Strange, referring to Ko Kuei Chen 陳克恢 (1898-1988), an internationally prominent pharmacist from Shanghai who earned his PhD at UW-Madison in 1923 and went on to a storied career with Eli Lilly.

However Strange soon realized that materials on early Chinese students were dispersed throughout the School of Pharmacy’s archives.

“It was so random – we found folders labeled “China,” some of which turned out to actually have documents in Japanese,” she said.

Strange was pointed toward the topic in the fall of 2021 by History of Pharmacy Professor Lucas Richert, and then connected with Hannah Swan, who arrived in Madison in September to begin a three-year National Endowment for the Humanities grant-funded project to organize and digitize pharmacy archives.

Known as the Kremers Reference Files, the School of Pharmacy’s archives are a unique historical collection named after a former professor and director of the School of Pharmacy, Edward Kremers, who is perhaps best known for creating the first four-year pharmacy course of study in the U.S., but who also promoted the need for preserving archival records “for the benefit of future historians.” As Strange and Swan discovered, the archival records that Kremers helped create hold important materials about early Chinese students, including correspondence between them and Kremers himself.

One of the display cases in Rennebohm Hall tells the story of early Chinese pharmacy students like K.K. Chen, whose picture can be seen here in the upper left.

Throughout the fall, Swan steadily set aside materials for Strange to review, enough to more than fill one of the Pharmacy display cases. Strange culled her findings and set up a display that opened this month across the hall from the dean’s office for the School of Pharmacy in Rennebohm Hall. Strange will offer a “Meet the Curator” lecture on the exhibit Friday, Feb 17, at noon in Rennebohm’s Room 1128.

“There’s a lot of materials that aren’t displayed that I plan to talk about,” said Strange. These documents include correspondence and materials about Chinese medicine and chemistry that Strange says explain the ideas these early Chinese students had about the evolving field of pharmacy.

Titled “Translating Tradition: Traditional Chinese Medicine and the UW-Madison School of Pharmacy,” the display showcases, among other things, K.K. Chen’s pioneering work with the Chinese herb mahuang 麻黄, known in English as ephedra and still used as a drug for the treatment of respiratory disease. Strange pointed to a small wooden box that was used to ship the herb to Wisconsin, one of an array of photos and artifacts in the display case, with notes in both English and Chinese.

Through her research, Strange learned more about K.K. Chen, but also discovered S. Y. Chen 陳思義 (1902-1983), who established the first independent pharmacy school in China.

“He’s the gem,” she said.

Chen (who is not related to K.K. Chen), received his PhD from UW-Madison in 1927 and returned to Shanghai and Nanjing, continuing to correspond with Kremers despite the upheaval of civil war and invasion underway in China.

The display includes an array of items, letters, photos, and documents, with explanations in both English and Chinese.

Though it is difficult to say exactly how many Chinese students were studying pharmacy at UW-Madison in the 1920s and 30s, Strange estimated that each class had 4-5 from China.

The first University of Wisconsin degrees to Chinese students were awarded in 1910 to a cohort of three bachelor’s recipients and four master’s degree awardees, in the fields of political science, political economy and education.

Strange said that her work on early pharmacy students will be useful to her dissertation on the development of scientific disciplines in 20th century China.  Through studying the letters and publications of these students in the 1920s, Strange said she was interested to see how they incorporated traditional Chinese medicine into modern chemical research. She also noted their active involvement in campus life. Her display case stresses that not only was K.K. Chen an accomplished pharmacist – he also played the  bass in the University Band.

“They were Badgers and proud to be from Wisconsin,” she said.

The exhibit will remain on display in the Rennebohm hallway through the summer.

As Swan noted, “This is an important story to tell.”