Chemical Reaction

Medicines from the Creator’s pharmacy

-Phil Burcham-

Most Christians love the Parable of the Good Samaritan since it testifies to God’s amazing grace and illuminates the path of practical discipleship. Yet unless I’m mistaken it also contains a “therapeutic injunction” that reprioritises our attitudes towards medicines. On finding the mugging victim, the Samaritan followed the pharmaceutical practices of his day by “pouring on oil and wine” to cleanse the sufferer’s wounds. By commending such efforts, Christ’s command to “go thou and do likewise” helped fostered the compassionate use of medicines within societies that came under the gospel’s sway.

Our faith also propagated the notion that the Creator has richly endowed His world with medicinal plants: Revelation 22:2 thus announces that “the leaves of the trees are for the healing of nations.” Various non-canonical writings of the early church echo this sentiment and celebrate the related conviction that humanity is bestowed with the intelligence needed to study medicinal plants.

Rising Christian interest in curative botanicals inevitably clashed with the surrounding pagan culture where a low regard for the sanctity of human life prevailed. While medicinal plants were appreciated by Greco-Roman doctors such as Galen, the dominant worldview sadly sanctioned the misuse of hallucinogenic and poisonous plants for occult rituals or the slaying of unwanted nascent life.

By reforming these pagan attitudes, the Christian worldview laid a coherent foundation for a sustainable culture of pharmaceutical inventiveness.

Early Christian leaders confronted this mindset and consequently several New Testament passages, including Galatians 5: 19-21, disparage the dark practices of the pharmakai – the medicine men
of Greco-Roman times. Most post- Apostolic church leaders took a similar stance: Ambrose, the 4th century Bishop of Milan, famously cautioned his flock against those who use “parricidal mixtures” to snuff out “the fruit of their wombs”.

By reforming these pagan attitudes, the Christian worldview laid a coherent foundation for a sustainable culture of pharmaceutical inventiveness. By the medieval era, monasteries became centres for the cultivation of medicinal plants, the study of which accelerated during the Reformation as Wittenberg fostered the careers of great “Lutheran herbalists” such as Leonhart Fuchs (1501-66).

In 1799, J.C. Reil, a German pastor’s son, published an influential argument for improved scientific rigour in the use of medicines, stimulating a sustained effort to identify the chemicals in plants that bring benefits to patients. Over subsequent decades chemists purified many important drugs from plants, including morphine (from opium poppies), quinine (Cinchona bark), salicylates (Willow bark) and digitalis (Foxglove petals).

The belief that every life is precious has declined as utilitarian values snared the heart of modern medicine.

The science of pharmacology – which promotes the intelligent use of medicines – emerged as scientists began describing the subtle bodily effects of newly discovered drugs. During its golden age in the 19th and 20th centuries, cascading discoveries ensured medicines became available for diverse diseases from angina to zygomycosis.

Despite these successes, this remarkable era is likely closing. Firstly, the falling effectiveness of many antibiotics suggests we are losing the battle against drug-resistant pathogens. Also, despite heavy investment in biomedical research, the yield of new drugs is likely falling: some drug industry analysts recently coined “Eroom’s Law” to denote our failing ability to deliver new medicines (a pun on Moore’s Law which describes the relentless increases in computing power – compared to the IT industry, pharmaceutical innovation is seemingly going backwards!).

The elephant in the room here is whether pharmaceutical know-how can prosper in a world where Christian values exert declining influence. The belief that every life is precious has declined as utilitarian values snared the heart of modern medicine. Pharmacology chairs and departments disappeared from medical schools, while the rising dominance of genetics labs in maternity hospitals suggests that utilitarian medicine prefers to eradicate imperfect humanity within the womb rather than devote its energies towards pharmaceutical improvement of its postnatal prospects. We may yet regret having taken the Good Samaritan ethic and its Author for granted.

Phil Burcham is a pharmacologist and PCA elder in Perth.

First Published in the Spring Edition 2014

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