Today, we find science where we thought we saw
superstition. 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.
Why did the old remedies
hang on so long? Why did we keep bleeding sick
patients? Ancient Egyptians used the so-called Balm
of Gilead -- a poultice of butter and honey. We
kept right on using it until modern times. Can you
imagine smearing such a mess on an open wound!
Yet the same people invented trigonometry. The
creators of the Italian Renaissance were still
using those cures. We might wonder if inventive
minds simply switched off when it came to medicine.
Maybe not! Take bleeding: Recently, a Canadian
physiologist bled feverish animals. Sure enough,
the fever went down. Of course he wasn't allowed to
try it on feverish human subjects.
But see what history tells us: Roman doctors were
clear about bleeding. It cut fever, but that's all
it did. We finally had fever thermometers after the
Civil War and before malpractice law. It was then
that a German doctor measured the effect of
bleeding on humans. Sure enough, it did reduce
So, it seems, we owe our forebears more respect.
Our technologies didn't get where they are by being
silly or superstitious. Medicine has always been
part foolishness. But then, as now, medicine
included a whole lot of acquired truth, as well.
We credit Edward Jenner with inventing inoculation.
Yet inoculation was also an ancient folk practice.
Jenner himself made the connection after he talked
to a milkmaid. She pointed out that you can't get
smallpox if you've had cowpox first.
And what about that sugary Balm of Gilead? It too
has come under new scrutiny. Sugar, it seems, is a
very effective antibiotic. It's not clear why.
Maybe it creates an osmotic pressure that kills
germs by driving water out of cells.
We can go on and on like this. In 1856 the explorer
Richard Burton wrote that
Africans thought mosquitoes caused malaria. That
superstition came about, he said, because malaria
happened to arrive during the mosquito season.
Somehow, we still call that folklore -- not
science. As far as we're concerned, the relation
between mosquitoes and malaria wasn't discovered
until Walter Reed figured it out.
It's easy to forget that any science is a system of
beliefs -- not a body of truth. Ancient medical
lore reminds us that a system of knowledge is only
a garment we put on. Ancient medicine reminds us
that strange people, in strange garments, can know
far more than we like to admit.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds