The Whole Is Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts…Except When It Isn’t

The main point of my previous post was all about how Chinese Medicine is based on viewing people, health, and life in their entirety.  I went so far as to title the piece “The Whole Is Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts.”  For the most part, this is true…except when it isn’t.  Case in point: penicillin.

The discovery of penicillin and other antibiotics was one of the most revolutionary discoveries of modern medicine.  Sir Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin in 1929 when mold contaminated a bacterial culture he was trying to cultivate.  The mold produced a substance that killed the bacteria.  So did doctors immediately start rubbing moldy bread on patients when they had infections?  Of course not.

It took about 18 years after the initial discovery to figure out a way to process the penicillin so that it could be medically administered in a consistent fashion.   There are many types of mold that grow on bread, in addition to lots of other pathogens that are not so useful.  First, the mold that produced the bacteria-killing substance had to be identified.  Then the substance (the penicillin) had to be isolated.  Then the substance had to be purified and stabilized so it could be administered directly to patients in a safe form.  It was also imperative that the penicillin batches were consistent in their properties so doctors knew how much to administer and how long its effects would last.  This is a great example of reductionism coming in quite handy.

Huang Bai (phellodendron bark)

Today we still use many herbs (plants) that have moderate to strong antibacterial properties such as Huang Qin (skullcap root), Huang Lian (coptis root) and Huang Bai (phellodenron bark).  And using these herbs in their whole form has significant medical value even in our modern times.  But by isolating the active constituents in plants such as these and other botanicals, it is possible to create medicine that is even more potent than available from the original plant as a whole.  This ability has completely changed the face of modern medicine and for that we ought to be grateful.

So you see, there is great value in both the whole as well as its parts.  We needn’t maintain a one-sided point of view of medicine.  We can embrace it all.

Tags: Chinese herbal medicine, Chinese medicine, herbal medicine, herbs, medicine

Topics: Chinese Medicine, Herbs for Skin Care, Miscellaneous

Publish Date: June 11, 2010     *Articles may include updates since original publishing.

About the Author ()

Diana Hermann is a licensed acupuncturist and board certified in Chinese Herbal Medicine. She received her Master Degree in Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine from the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine in Portland, OR and trained in China at the Nanjing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Diana treats patients in her Fort Collins, Colorado clinic and hand crafts herbal skin care products for her company Zi Zai Dermatology. In 2015, she completed the Diploma In Chinese Medicine Dermatology program from Avicenna in London, UK. She completed the program for a second time in 2019 in Chicago.

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