How naturalists saved lives discovering species
Posted on March 9th, 2011

By Philip Fernando, former Deputy Editor Sunday Obseerver Sri Lanka

Naturalists and centuries of species discoveries have helped humanity ward off pestilence and disease. Their success in finding cures provided the breather we enjoy now from plagues of yesteryear. Roughly half our medicines came directly from the natural world, or were manufactured synthetically due to naturalists performing their job. Naturalists no longer get scoffed at for collecting everything from miniscule insects to gargantuan elephant jaws.

 In the 18th century Sir Hans Sloane the physician and naturalist was known for collecting objects of interest–eventually the British Museum, the British Library, and the Natural History Museum, London were born.

 Naturalists believed that that all species must be observed and allowed to co-exist which greatly enhanced the study of the origins and causes of disease and finding effective cures.

 The list includes aspirin (originally from the willow tree), almost all our antibiotics (from fungi that evolved in nature, not a Petri dish), and many of our most efficient cancer treatments.

 Contribution to medicine

 Drugs developed from the Madagascar rosy periwinkle, a flowering plant helped cancer patients. Those with lung, breast, uterine, and other cancers benefited from botanist named Arthur S. Barclay’s research in 1962 on samples of the Pacific yew tree, leading to the development of the anticancer drug Taxol.

 Naturalists helped discover large swaths of the world’s basic medicinal remedies. John Hunter, a British physician, considered the father of modern surgery emphasized the importance of observing the natural world.

 Hunter’s passion for animals had been unquenchable-he made detailed flesh-and-blood comparisons of animals and humans, discovering, among other things, how bones grow and what course the olfactory nerves travel.

 Another scientist Edward Jenner referred to as the “Father of Immunology”helped discover vaccines against countless deadly diseases, from yellow fever to polio. He got credited for saving more lives than anyone in the history of medicine.

 Workings of human body

 Beyond giving us powerful new drugs, discoveries from the natural world also frequently opened our eyes to the unsuspected workings of our own bodies. The observation that snake bite sent blood pressure plummeting down in minutes eventually spawned a new mechanism for controlling human blood pressure.

 Another cure, rapamycin, also known as Sirolimus, developed from a soil fungus on Easter Island(Southern Pacific region), provided a pathway previously unknown to medicine regarding human immune system. It’s now widely used for organ transplants and as a coating on heart stents.

 We are still discovering other species that might enhance our knowledge about fighting illnesses. Only a tiny percentage of the world’s plants have been screened, and even those have only been screened against a small fraction of the diseases for which they could be effective.

 Species go instinct

 It is important to know that pharmacologically-active compounds developed over millions of years and found effective in the world’s unforgiving laboratory””‚nature””‚routinely vanish, as the species in which they evolved go extinct.

 Epidemics seemed completely discounted by the world–that it’s hard to imagine we ever lived otherwise. But malaria once routinely killed millions a century ago. Yellow fever epidemics in the US in 1878, one in eight residents of New Orleans died as desolation came in weeks.

 We are aware how naturalists and identified the causes of yellow fever, typhus, plague, dysentery and, above all, malaria.

 Scientists were now in a position to name, describe and classify organisms including plants, animals and microorganisms of the world. Taxonomy as well as behavioural methods to study species from microbial organisms to mosquitoes had become second nature to us. As the great Scottish naturalist Patrick Manson, the father of tropical medicine stated. The study of the origins and causes of disease is but a branch of natural history.

 The brief respite we have had from epidemics should not blind us to the gradual destruction of forests, wetland and glaciers. It would be delusionary to think that humanity can survive separated from nature. Conservation must become a key ingredient of our lives.

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