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
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
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