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
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
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
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.
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