Today, we almost learn the secrets of a new world.
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.
In 1521 the Spanish
conqueror Cortez set up the first European hospital
in Mexico City. It was open to both Spaniards and
Indians. That was the same year Leonardo da Vinci
died. It was a long time ago.
The University of Mexico opened 30 years later. By
1579, the University started a medical school. That
was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Even
before that, they'd given medical degrees based on
a Spanish education.
Spain was interested in New World medicine. Phillip
II had told his people to learn Mexican cures. But
Spanish doctors had trouble with Mexican medicine.
They didn't so much ask whether or not it worked.
They asked instead how well the Indians held to
principles of Hippocrates and Galen. They thought
Mexican medicine was nothing but blind trial and
By 1579 the New World had produced three medical
texts. Francisco Bravo published the first in 1570.
Bravo hardly mentioned his Colonial experience. He
discussed a local form of typhus. And he talked
about the Indian herb, sarsaparilla. He said the
natives didn't understand sarsaparilla's
Then a Jesuit, Alonso Lopez de Hinojosis, wrote a
surgery book. It was quite another matter. Lopez
avoided the philosophic language of formal
medicine. He said the Church wanted more "the
salvation of the Indians' souls than their [bodily]
Lopez talked about 50 native herbs. They had, in
his words, been "born in this land through the
mercy of God."
The third book came out in 1579. Friar Agustin
Farfan wrote on anatomy, surgery and medicine. He
offered 60 Aztec cures for general use.
Mexico was on the way to giving Europe a huge new
pharmacopoeia. Then it all stagnated. Guenter Risse
tells how the long arm of Spanish orthodoxy reached
across the Atlantic. The establishment closed down
on work with native cures.
By the time Europeans landed in New England, Mexico
was back to bloodletting and purging. The healing
powers of agave, sarsaparilla, and quaiacum were
Today, pharmacologists comb the forests of Central
and South America. They're looking for cures
that've not only been forgotten -- the very species
are becoming extinct.
And so we're finally picking up on work begun by a
few bright Jesuits 450 years ago. But we are, alas,
getting there a day late and dollar short.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds