History as Present
There's a great story of how Tu Youyou came to the work that led to her 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine. The roots of her research have alchemical origins. David Epstein gives an account in Range:
Tu is known as the “professor of the three no's”: no membership in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, no research experience outside of China, and no postgraduate degree. Before Tu, other scientists had reportedly tested 240,000 compounds searching for a malaria cure. Tu was interested in both modern medicine and history, and was inspired by a clue in a recipe for medication made from sweet wormwood, written by a fourth-century Chinese alchemist. Technology doesn't get much more withered than that. It led her to experiment (at first on herself) with a sweet wormwood extract known as artemisinin. Artemisinin is now regarded as one of the most profound drug discoveries in medicine. A study on the decline of malaria in Africa attributed 146 million averted cases to artemisinin-based therapies between 2000 and 2015. Tu had a lot of disadvantages, but she had an outsider advantage as well that made it easier for her to look in places others would not dare.
The fourth-century alchemist Epstein glosses over is Ge Hong, who has other discoveries worthy of note:
In his most famous book, “Manual of Clinical Practice and Emergency Remedies,” he recorded a strange epidemic disease, which made patients suffer a serious fever while experiencing white pustules on their skin. The disease was later discovered to be smallpox. Ge's record was 500 years earlier than the Arabic physician Muhammad ibn ZakariyāRāzī's.
Ge also mentioned scrub typhus in his text, finding that the disease at that time was prevalent in China's Fujian and Guangdong provinces, and was caused by an intracellular parasite orientia tsutsugamushi. His record was roughly 1,500 years earlier than the first English report made by Dr. Theobald Palm in 1878.
In hindsight, Ge is a noteworthy figure ahead of his time. I wonder how much of that is hiding behind alchemical subtexts that many wouldn't bother with. Perhaps they think it backward? No matter. Tu bothered, and we have her to thank for her breakthrough in finding a cure for malaria.
There's a lot of history that we throw aside; history that is supposedly antithetical to what we're working on. I wonder what else could be found if we fight against the tendency to label such history as anachronistic to current & future ventures both large & small?
I am again reminded of a passage from the second volume of Lewis Mumford's The Myth of the Machine, imagining of a society that fully integrated history into its practices:
Had Leonardo [DaVinci]'s example in fact been followed, naturalization, mechanization, organization, and humanization might have proceeded together. Thus one method could have influenced and sustained the other, maintaining continuity with the past, yet alertly absorbing useful or significant novelty, constantly reviewing and correcting past errors, and seeking a wider selection of possibilities; introducing new values, not to destroy but to enrich and fortify those already achieved by other ages and other cultures. Such a practical syncretism of technologies and ideologies would have been an open one, open indeed at both sides, to past and future — constantly absorbing and refining more of the past while projecting and remodeling in a richer design ever larger tracts of the future.