This report chronicles the events that led to the inception of the Chinese materia medica (CMM) research program at the Peking Union Medical College (PUMC). Dozens of herbal drugs were investigated during the decade after the program was conceived in 1921, including ma-huang, from which ephedrine, an anti-asthmatic drug of global impact, was isolated in 1924. The program was primarily born out of a serendipitous intersection of two independent pursuits by Dr. Ralph G. Mills and Mr. Bernard E. Read, two PUMC faculty members, of their interests in CMM, instead of a preconceived grander aim or strategy by the institution or by any visionary. The establishment of the program, however, was the result of pragmatic handling of personnel and administrative issues by the China Medical Board (CMB)'s key decisionmakers, who accepted the seemingly plausible scientific value and various utilitarian promise of CMM and were open to its research at the PUMC.
The discovery of ephedrine is the most celebrated scientific achievement from the CMM research program, and one of the few highlights of Chinese science during the entire Republican Era. Reconstructing the origin of the program will hopefully place this highly acclaimed scientific event in an accurate historical context and enable the construction of a non-whiggish historiographical narrative.