Surmounting Disaster: Transformations in PRC Health Emergency Strategies
1: From Motherwort to Progesterone Injections: Fighting Famine with Chinese and Western Medicine, 1958-1962
Sunday, March 27, 2022
10:45am – 12:15pm EST
Virtual Paper Presenter(s)
San Diego State University, United States
This paper examines the wide array of remedies used to treat malnutrition-related gynecological ailments during the Great Leap Famine of 1958-62, as well as the important role that prominent female physicians and young female health workers played in identifying or employing such treatments. Because both acknowledging famine conditions and reducing high grain quotas were politically dangerous during the Great Leap disaster, cadres at all levels engaged in a pronounced “medicalization of starvation.” Rising mortality rates were attributed to “fuzhongbing” (edema), and plummeting birthrates were blamed on “funübing” (women’s diseases), in particular amenorrhea and uterine prolapse. Finding it politically untenable to provide relief grain, between 1959 and 1961 officials at the provincial and county levels instead sent large teams of medical personnel to rural areas to treat the starving with a combination of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and biomedicine. This paper focuses on how the 1950s campaign to unify Chinese and Western medicines shaped the top-down and bottom-up development of an eclectic mix of treatments for amenorrhea (the cessation of menstruation in women of child-bearing age) and uterine prolapse during the famine. I also examine how, by whom, and to what effect these therapies were used to treat famished women in severely-affected counties in Anhui and Henan. I find that while medical interventions did little to address the root cause – starvation and overwork -- of these “women’s diseases,” the exhaustive search for cures provides a vivid snapshot of Mao-era medical theory, gender ideals, and state responses to public health crises.