Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1041:
CHINESE PHARMACY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1041.

Today, we ask how the Chinese managed to hide their candle under a bushel. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Modern pharmacology had to wait for biochemistry. Without it, all we could do was play around with herbs and hope for the best, right? Well, maybe not. Since the early days of Rome, Chinese doctors have done astonishing things with medicine and anatomy.

While Rome fought the last Punic War in the 2nd century BC, Chinese doctors were learning that blood recirculates and that it's refreshed in the lungs. Europe didn't begin to realize that until the 1500s. William Harvey finally got it straight in 1628. The Chinese also calculated that blood recirculates every 30 minutes. They got that figure by dissecting bodies, measuring the length of blood vessels, and making dubious assumptions. The correct value is more like 30 seconds. But -- Harvey also thought it took 30 minutes.

As the Punic wars ended, the Chinese had also begun extracting male and female hormones from urine. They did that by evaporating the liquid and using sublimation to separate estrogens or androgens from the other solids. They called those hormones the "autumn mineral," because they looked like autumn frost. They used them to treat sexual dysfunction and underdeveloped sexual characteristics.

By the height of the Roman empire, the Chinese were writing about using diet to fight beriberi. It was 1900 before Western doctors realized you got beriberi by trying to subsist on white rice. If the Chinese didn't know the part about vitamin B in brown rice -- well, it was 1936 before Western doctors isolated vitamin B.

By the time of Europe's Dark Ages, the Chinese had synthesized thyroid hormone from jujube dates. They used it to treat goiters. They also controlled diabetes with the right diet. They knew diabetics should avoid starchy foods. And, when the American, Michael Katsoyannis, synthesized insulin in 1966, the irony is that Chinese scientists Zahn and Wang had synthesized it two years earlier. But Zahn and Wang got swallowed up in the Cultural Revolution. The West got the credit.

Finally, as medieval cathedrals rose in France, the Chinese were regularly inoculating themselves against smallpox.

Why did all this stay unknown in the West? Well, the language barrier went beyond words. We were put off by metaphors like autumn mineral. And the Chinese didn't have our medium of print to spread knowledge. China did have printing before the West, but with so many characters it never became a real mass medium.

So the word didn't get out. And we have, for the last 400 years, proudly reinvented idea after idea already known to the Chinese -- things already known for two millennia.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Temple, R, and Needham, J., The Genius of China: 3000 Years of Science Discovery and Invention. New York: A Touchstone Book, 1989, Part 5, Medicine and Health.

I am grateful to Robert Hazlewood, UH Biology Department, for pointing out the Chinese synthesis of insulin in 1964.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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