Dr John H. F. Shen
by Ray Rubio, D.A.O.M., L. Ac.
(Westlake Village, CA, USA)
Somehow, early in my practice about 10 years ago, I was lucky enough to come into contact with Dr. John Shen. At the time, I didn't know that this was "the" Dr. Shen, as in the famous Chinese Pulse Master and Herblist who was the inspiration for Dr. Leon Hammer's Pulse Book, and one of the major influences for Giovanni Maciocia, Jane Lyttleton, Lonny Jarrett, and many, many other leaders in our profession. I just found out that there was a workshop being offered in Berkley on advanced herbal prescribing, so I signed up and went. What an eye-opening, mind-opening, and heart-opening experience for me!
Dr. Shen was from the Menghe-Ding lineage of pre-moaist, pre-tcm Chinese physicians famous in Shanghai at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries. Like his predecessors of this lineage, Dr. Shen employed an extremely detailed pulse diagnosis system, a facial diagnosis system, and an herbal prescribing system that most closely resembled the Shang Han Lun style of prescribing characterized by very low dosages of individual herbs - often 1.5g to 3 or 6 g.
Dr. Shen was also renowned for the development of what he called "system diagnosis", wherein patients who have a multitude of signs and systems that don't fit neatly into any Zang-Fu pattern, can then be diagnosed with what Dr. Shen referred to as either "nervous system disease", "digestive system disease" or "circlatory system disease". (see chapter 14 in Dr. Leon Hammer's book, "Dragon Rises, Red Bird Flies" revised edition by Eastland Press for a thorough discussion of this topic).
In the few years that I was able to spend time with Dr. Shen in both his New York City practice, and in Shanghai before his death, I felt like I was given a glimpse into the past history of Chinese Medicine - before it became systematized and formulaic. What I learned from Dr. Shen, I mostly learned from watching him. Watching him ask questions, feel the pulse, and then tell the patient - not ask them - when, how, and why their disease or problem developed. By using facial diagnosis to determine the chronology of the disease, and using pulse/tongue and eyelid diagosis to assess the state of the nervous system, digestive system, and blood, then using probing questions to fill in the rest of the blanks - Dr. Shen was uncanny in his ability to unravel even the most mysterious and stubborn conditions. The following brief case will illustrate what I mean:
I was sitting with Dr. Shen while he saw patients during one of my trips to see him in New York City. Because Dr. Shen was quite famous, it was not uncommon for patients to fly from all over the world to come see him for help. On this particular day, a very elegant woman in her early 40's came in to see Dr. Shen complaining of violent, daily migraine headaches. Interestingly, this woman was the heir to one of the worlds most famous cosmetic/perfume families and had just flown in from Paris that day. She proceeded to explain to Dr. Shen that her headaches had started suddenly just about two years prior, and that she had been to see the best doctors in Europe to no avail. There was no family history of migraines, she had not had a head or neck injury preceding the onset of her headaches, and no medications had even been able to dull the pain even a little. She had also tried a virtual smorgasboard of alternative healers, again with no relief in her pain. Finally someone suggested that she see Dr. Shen, and so here she was.
Dr. Shen asked her some more questions about what she ate, when the pain was the worst, how was her sleep and stress levels, where the pain was localized, etc. The looked at her lower eyelid, and at her tongue very briefly, and finally he motioned for her to extend her wrist onto the pulse pillow so he could read her pulses. After spending about 5-10 minutes listening to her pulses, Dr. Shen sat back and proceeded to ask her how she was enjoying New York, where she was staying, was she going to see any shows while she was in town, etc. At this point, both the patient and I were slightly perplexed. I was perplexed because usually Dr. Shen would send the patient to the waiting room to wait while he wrote their herbal prescription, and he was just sitting there making small talk with her and not writing anything. The patient was annoyed because she had flown all the way from Paris to get help, not to chit-chat. Finally she started to weep, telling Dr. Shen that she didn't know how much longer she could live with these headaches, and that she had come to him to get herbal medicine to help her with the pain.
Dr. Shen paused, took her hand very gently in his, looked into her eyes and said that she didn't need herbs because she was already cured. I think my jaw dropped to floor, and she too looked absolutely flabbergasted. I wasn't used to Dr. Shen playing the faith-healer, so I wasn't sure what he meant. Finally, he looked at her and asked her if she had perhaps started wearing any new mascara about two years ago, around when the headaches started. She thought for a moment while she wiped her eyes, and then she slowly nodded her head and answered that her cosmetics company had launched a new mascara at that time which was formulated to be a "24-hour" mascara and be more long lasting after being applied. She had taken to wearing it at that time. Dr. Shen sat back and smiled and said that this was the cause of her headaches. He proceeded to explain that because all of her neurological and physical exams had turned up no cause to her headaches, and because there was no family history of them, and because the onset was so sudden without any head injury, Dr.Shen felt that the cause of the headaches had to be something local (in the head) causing an allerghic reaction. He said that the lower eyelid showed a chemical reaction in the bloodstream, and the pulse indicated the same thing. He then said that he also noted that when he had examined her lower eyelid, he noticed that the mascara did not come off on his fingers like it normally did with female patients. Dr. Shen advised her to stop wearing that mascara, and from that day on she was free of headaches. After that, whenever she was visiting New York City, she would make a point to stop in and drop off a present to Dr. Shen.
The patient above was only once of hundreds that I observed with Dr. Shen where he used his superior powers of observation and logical thinking to unravel very difficult cases. Dr. Shen always reminded me it is more important to understand life, than to understand disease, because disease usually comes from life. He said that being a doctor of Chinese Medicine was very similar to being Sherlock Holmes - one had to be an astute observer of even the smallest details. Sadly, Dr. Shen passed away at 90, still much too soon for myself and his other students and patients who knew him and loved him. From him I learned that all of the herbal knowledge and acupuncture knowledge in the world mean very little without the correct diagnosis.