Hua Tuo, the Ancient Chinese Doctor Who Was Centuries Before His Time

Hua Tuo, the Ancient Chinese Doctor Who Was Centuries Before His Time
Woodblock by Utagawa Kuniyoshi of Hua Tuo removing poison from Guan Yu's arm (Public domain)
Maria Han

Hua Tuo was a Chinese medical doctor regarded as an immortal—for both his youthful appearance despite his old age, and for the magic-like diagnoses and treatments he performed.

He is said to have diagnosed a tumor in the brain of the warlord Cao Cao in the 2nd century, long before CT scanners. Hua Tuo said he could operate on Cao Cao to remove the tumor but Cao Cao had him killed thinking Hua Tuo meant to murder him.

"Cao Cao summoned him to serve as his personal physician, and either became enraged with Hua Tuo's hesitancy to return again later to provide more treatments or suspected an assassination attempt when Hua Tuo suggested brain surgery as a treatment for his severe headaches," writes Subhuti Dharmananda, director of the Institute for Traditional Medicine in Portland, Oregon, on the institute's website.
Another account of this is given in the article "The Life and Medical Practice of Hua Tuo" published in the Pacific Journal of Oriental Medicine.
"Tuo examined Cao and informed him that his headaches were due to air and fluid building up inside his skull. He said that medicine would be of no use and that he needed to give Cao an anaesthetic, open his skull and remove the accumulation," wrote Brian May, adding that this was taken from "Romance of the Three Kingdoms."

How did Hua Tuo come to the diagnosis that the pain Cao Cao was feeling was the result of a tumor? How did he diagnose any of his patients for the issues that they had inside their bodies? His fame comes from many cases of successful diagnosis and advanced treatment before his ill-fated attempts to treat Cao Cao.

"He is accredited for spearheading the practice of laparotomies and organ transplants, using anesthetics, and he was the first Chinese surgeon to operate on the abdomen including performing splenectomy and colostomy. Neurologically, Hua Tuo is said to have performed procedures to treat headache [and] paralysis," says the article "China's first surgeon: Hua Tuo," co-authored by R. Shane Tubbs, a neurosurgery professor at the Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana. The article was published in the journal of the International Society for Pediatric Neurosurgery in 2011.

How Did Hua Tuo 'See' Inside the Body?

Chinese medicine has some tools for discovering what's going on inside the body by detecting outward symptoms. One technique is through feeling the pulse. The sensitivity of the pulse changing as the body changes is something that great Chinese medicine doctors were attuned to. But even if an anomaly was detected in the head, how did Hua Tuo know it was a tumor?
"It is said that some ancient TCM [traditional Chinese medicine] doctors are clairvoyant or clairsentient, meaning they have high intuitive powers to sense, see and feel beyond the physical," said Dr. Xiang Jun., Ph.D. in Acupuncture, said on her website.

Hua Tuo was known for practicing Taoism (Daoism). He is said to have looked to the divine for guidance and to have improved himself and his abilities this way. The Taoists of Chinese legend are often said to have supernormal abilities. Some modern scientists have also looked at how spiritual practices might help people develop powers considered supernormal.

For example, Dean Radin, chief scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, has written extensively about spiritual practitioners and reported supernormal abilities throughout the course of history.

In his book “Supernormal: Science, yoga, and the evidence for extraordinary psychic abilities,” Radin said: “For a Western-trained academic, the mere existence of, say, telepathy would be considered supernormal and thus wildly extraordinary. But for an experienced yogi, it’s just a boringly normal minor siddhi [a Sanskrit term for a meditation attainment, or power]."

Dharmananda wrote of Hua Tuo: "Being an accomplished Taoist and following its principles, he did not seek fame or fortune, though much praise was heaped upon him."

Cao Cao reportedly had Hua Tuo killed in 207 A.D. at the age of 97, Dharmananda said, citing “Records of the Wei Dynasty (Wei Zhi).” Even at 97, it is said that Hua Tuo was a healthy and youthful-looking man.

"Knowing well the way to keep one in good health, Hua Tuo still appeared in the prime of his life when he was almost 100, and so was regarded as immortal," Dharmananda wrote.

"Both the [historic records] 'San Guo Zhi' and 'Hou Han Shu' say that people in his time thought he was approaching 100 years of age. The 'Hou Han Shu' adds that following his death he became an immortal," wrote May, Takako Tomoda, and Michael Wang, co-authors of "The Life and Medical Practice of Hua Tuo."

The First Widely Known Surgeon in China

Surgery is not widely seen in Chinese medical practices today but there are many records of Hua Tuo performing surgery with his own version of anesthesia to help his patients.
One of Hua Tuo's feats, an abdominal surgery he performed on a patient, is recounted in "China’s first surgeon: Hua Tuo": "In the event of an abdominal surgery, Tuo directed his patient to drink a herbal concoction, and as soon as the patient lost consciousness, Tuo would make his incision."

The herbal concoction mentioned in the article is an anesthetic that Hua Tuo invented to help the patient feel little to no pain during surgery.

Dharmananda also included an account of Hua Tuo performing abdominal surgery.

"A patient who suffered from abdominal pain for more than 10 days and had depilation of his beard and eyebrows asked Hua Tuo for treatment. The doctor diagnosed him as having a deterioration in the abdomen, asked him to drink the anesthesia, then explored his abdomen and removed the deteriorated part, sutured and plastered the abdomen, and administered some herbs. The patient recovered after 100 days."

Acupuncture Master

In Chinese medicine, illness can be healed or temporarily relieved through acupuncture. Hua Tuo's acupuncture skills were said to be great and he is known as one of the best acupuncturists in history. He has a series of acupuncture points named after him called the Hua Tuo Jiaji.
"The Hua Tuo acupuncture points, known as Hua Tuo Jiaji (jia = lining; ji = spine), are located in a row along side the spine, bilaterally. The points are attributed to Huo Tuo because it is said that he preferred treating certain conditions with these points," Dharmananda wrote.

Although Hua Tuo recorded his knowledge and experiences in books, those books were lost. However, accounts of his brilliance have survived. One such extraordinary case of acupuncture saving a life was when Hua Tuo reportedly helped a woman who had a stillborn baby.

"Following a miscarriage, a woman approached Tuo, complaining of severe abdominal pain. Upon evaluating the womans pulse, Tuo diagnosed the woman with a twin pregnancy, solidifying the presence of a dead fetus inside her abdomen. With a mere session of acupuncture, Tuo evoked the stillbirth," wrote Tubbs and co-authors of "China's first surgeon: Hua Tuo.