The Chinese were First, but Overtaken

Replacement Therapy with Animal Tissue

Already in the 7th century AD, the Chinese were already using the thyroid glands of gelded ram, sheep, pigs etc as medicine to treat goiter, an enlargement of the thyroid gland presenting as a swelling on the neck. Some examples of medicinal preparations (Source: Robert Temple, The Genius of China):

  1. Take one hundred ram thyroid glands, wash in warm water, remove the fat, dry them, chop them up, mix with jujube dates, then make them into pills.
  2. Single thyroid gland is removed from a sheep, fat taken off, the gland put raw in the mouth, to be sucked dry by the patient, then chewed to bits.

The issue with such a means of treatment is its apparent simplicity. It involves ONLY┬ábig-picture think that our modern minds may not be able to come to terms with. An intellectual challenge would involve a logic rebuttal, e.g. “so you’re saying if I broke my leg, I’d need to eat more animal legs?” The point is that our minds have been trained to look for that something in the thyroid that solves the goiter, or the something in them animal legs that will actually promote healing.

What happens in goiter is that your thyroid gland, which is a machine of sorts, starts cranking really hard to produce thyroid hormones. It doesn’t succeed and instead swells in size. Thyroid hormone therapy as used today is a form of “suppression through replacement” therapy — replacement with t3 or t4 analogues prevents further growth of thyroid tissue caused by high levels of thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH).

Thyroid hormone can be found in the thyroid glands of animals. In fact, one type of pharmaceutical thyroxine we use today – Armour Thyroid – is an extraction from the animal thyroid gland.

The Wisdom of the Ancients

The main idea here is that, the Chinese were not wrong. In fact, they were right. What we do today is just to improve on what they found, this we do by isolating compounds instead of using the whole plant or animal part.

The case for consuming pig pancreas to treat diabetes is also comprehendable using similar logic, only we now extract insulin from the pig and use it directly to treat intractable diabetes. This is replacement therapy. As for the use of animal penises or testicles on those who crave manliness, this idea is not so far fetched anymore. We really don’t know, but can imagine how these body parts would contain a fair amount of gonadotrophins or androgens that would provide a basis for virilty and muscle mass.

Paradigm Dominance Across Time

Of course, these Chinese people of ‘ancient wisdom’ could not have fathomed the complexity of endocrine relationships within the human body. What they had was the benefit of time. Just in the area of medicine alone, the Chinese got started relatively early. For example, long before William Harvey published his discovery about the circulation of blood in the body in 1628, this concept of blood circulation was already etched out in medical texts of Han China. Other ‘firsts’ to be claimed by the Chinese in the arena of medicine: the diagnosis and treatment of diabetes in the 7th century AD, and the discovery of innoculation as a method of treating smallpox in the 10th century AD.

That said, something was missing in a framework founded upon the philosophical richness of Chinese philosophy. Much documentation was done on all manner of disease, diseases which were described in rich detail, this spanning more than 15 centuries before the likes of Galileo, Pasteur, Harvey and many others had begun using another system to attain knowledge and to dominate the natural world. For example, despite the 1000-year delay of the Europeans in recognizing that diabetic urine is sweet (Thomas Willis, 1679), glucose was isolated as the cause for sweetness less than 2 centuries later.

And it’s not as if the Western world didn’t have such forms of thinking. Hippocrates too was a physician in the spirit of natural philosophy, and that was at a time even earlier than the 2nd century BC we spoke of earlier. It is reasonable to assert that the Middle Ages and the fragmented nature of European culture might have something to do with a comparative paucity of systematic documentation in European traditional medicine. The Chinese, on the other hand, maintained a dominant culture that flatboarded across the drift of centuries, establishing a medical system built upon the ancient philosophies of yin and yang, the five phases and several other concepts rooted in traditional Chinese philosophy. The ideas have evolved quite a bit since, but the Han characteristic of Chinese medicine is still evident today.

It is as if these philosophies, once entrenched, were the mainstay of scholarly thought and exerted a certain inertia that prevented the Chinese from progressing much further beyond the inventions of a time past — the compass, paper, gunpowder and of course a medicinal framework based on whole plants and animals. Cartesian thought and the ensuing industrial revolution allowed western Europe to make further headway in the medical arena.