Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 656:
HERBS AND MODERN MEDICINE

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 656.

Today, the inventive mind wakes up -- at the 11th hour. 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.

Here's a strange item. It's a fancy coffee-table picture book, The Power to Heal, published in 1990. Firms like Blue Cross, Parke-Davis, and the U.S. Surgical Corporation sponsored it.

The book honors medicine and healing, as you might expect. Yet it goes far beyond our medicine. These medical companies honor shamans, herbalists, and every form of tribal medicine.

Two years later, I read something in the New York Times. It puts this glossy book in a new perspective. A new wind is blowing through the pharmaceutical business. Suddenly, doctors, environmentalists, academics, businessmen, drug companies, and governments are all forging a delicate alliance.

It began with the death of plant species in Brazil. When we kill the rain forests, we also kill the mysterious herbs in them. One more plant dies off every moment. It's our last chance. We're losing that birthright faster than I can speak of it.

Still, the most skeptical among us admits that those herbs have healing powers we don't yet understand. In the 1930s we learned to make muscle relaxants from the curare plant.

In the 1960s we made a drug from the rosy periwinkle to treat leukemia and Hodgkin's disease. Now we're trying to isolate cures for flu and herpes viruses from herbs.

Why haven't we done more to find these herbal cures? The answer isn't conservatism. It's difficulty. You have to study the local folklore of healing. You have to isolate an herb species and its active ingredient. You have to test it. You have to find ways to synthesize the drug. You have to patent it and produce it.

Drug companies are paying high salaries to local herb gatherers. A company called Shaman Pharmaceuticals refines antiviral herbs and gives profits back to environmentalists.

The people who do this work are patient and visionary. This is no simple matter of buying up all the herbs in a third world region. Like our own medical enterprise, herbal medicine has its quacks and fakes. The sorting task is long and hard.

Another part of the problem is habit. In Glide, Oregon, Pacific Yew trees are garbage in a big logging operation. Loggers burn them in slash piles. Yet the bark of this rare Yew is the only known source of Taxol, the drug we use for ovarian cancer. It simply never occurred to anyone to save these trees.

So we build new habits and new reactions. We redirect our intellectual and creative energy. And we revitalize the hope of the sick -- people with cancer or AIDS. At the very last moment, we finally open our eyes -- to a whole world we'd overlooked.

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

(Theme music)


The Power to Heal: Ancient Arts and Modern Medicine. (R. Smolan, P. Moffitt, and Matthew Naythons, eds.) New York: Prentice-Hall Press, 1990.

Stevens, W.K., Shamans and Scientists Seek Cures in Plants. New York Times, SCIENCE, Tuesday, January 28, 1992, pp. B5 and B9.

Egan, T., Trees That Yield a Drug for Cancer Are Wasted. The New York Times, Wednesday, January 29, 1992, pg A1.


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

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