Li Shi-Zhen (1518-1593)

Statue of Li Shizhen in Taichung, Taiwan. Credit: Mark de Fraeye, Wellcome Images.

Li Shi-Zhen is regarded as the greatest physician in Chinese history. His encyclopedia of medicinal herbs, Bencao Gangmu, and his guide to pulse diagnosis, Binhu Maixue, are still standard texts of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Little is known about Li Shi-Zhen’s life, despite his important works. Both his father and grandfather were medical practitioners. However, Li Shi-Zhen initially attempted to become a government official by passing strict state exams. He was academically gifted and later it was said he ‘became addicted to the pleasures of books, which were as sweet to him as sugar-candy cane’.

Li Shi-Zhen followed the family tradition and studied medicine after repeatedly failing an important exam. He soon became a successful physician, and gained an appointment at a local princely court. He spent three decades working on his great compilation of information on medicinal herbs, Bencao Gangmu. It became a bestseller in China and was translated in Japan and Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. He also published work on pulse diagnosis, and even poetry.