Wofford senior Jonathan Hufford is biology’s version of a gym rat, only instead of shooting free throws in the gymnasium, he’s more likely to be found reading at the Milliken Science Center on campus.
“I am that nerd who can sit in Milliken, get out my textbook and learn the exact mechanism of the body’s response to something, which comes in handy,” says Hufford. “I just love the details.”
He must. He traveled the globe last year as Wofford’s Presidential International Scholar to gather them. Now Hufford is condensing those details into a project for the Community of Scholars. He is studying alternative/complementary medicines around the world.
“I have journals full of stuff,” he says. “A large part of my summer will be spent condensing it and picking out what will go into my research. I’m being very picky. I’m not a writer, so this is very possibly going to turn into something that I love but is in no way entertaining for others. (laughs) I’m doing my best so we’ll see where it goes.”
Where it started was Hufford’s childhood. He says he first wanted to learn about how people get better when he was 4 years old.
“I have always been interested in medicine -- the healing of people and the different ways it can be accomplished,” he says.
Hufford asserts he knew absolutely nothing about alternative/complementary medicine before seeing it firsthand.
“To have a year to travel to places in the world where an alternative medicine began and where it is still practiced, and to see it in an indigenous culture, and see how the culture gave rise to it and still supports it now, and what the people who use it think of its use in the future, was awesome,” he says. “Contrasted with, ‘Take this pill and you’ll be fine,’ it was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up.”
Truthfully, American/Western medicine does have a pill for almost everything. But Hufford, who showed the movie “Medicine Man” to his fellow scholars, found out that there is a lot more to be discovered.
“As of the early ‘90s, botanists were saying that of all the plants in the world, they had assayed one third of them, and two thirds of those had some type of medicinal quality,” he says. “Roughly 60 percent of modern drugs are derived from natural products. There are more than 120 clinically useful prescriptions derived principally from under 100 species of higher plants — 47 of which are native to the tropical rainforest—in use worldwide. The majority of these were discovered in a folk context.
“To date. only about 5,000 of the estimated 300,000 higher plant species have been studied for medical value! For example, though 70 percent of plants with known antitumor properties have been isolated in the rainforest, over 90 percent of the plants in the American rainforests have yet to be given even a superficial chemical screening. Worldwide, fewer than 15 percent of the higher plant species have been examined for anticancer properties.”
Hufford chose to get as far away from the medical lab as possible to see this for himself.
“Most alternative medicine is so tied to environment and culture,” he says. “People had things I’d never heard of before. I wasn’t going to find them in a textbook anywhere. And they’re just accepted as part of everyday life. If you’re sick, you grab that leaf and chew on it and you won’t be nauseous anymore.”
Or, as Hufford found out firsthand, you let this man stick a needle in you.
“I asked a Chinese doctor about acupuncture, and he did a demonstration on me,” he says. “I thought it was great. I didn’t go in with a specific ailment, but he did general health acupuncture and I felt great for like a whole week after that. He was trying to explain it to me using a little rubber doll. It’s sitting on my desk now. He gave it to me as well as a little pamphlet. Unfortunately the pamphlet is in Chinese.”
So while the pamphlet may not be of use to Hufford’s Community of Scholars project, he has plenty of other options to fall back on.
“So much of what I’m writing about is my actual experience,” he says. “It’s about my interaction with the practitioners and people who have used these medicines, and just being in the environment. A lot of these practices cannot be removed from the culture or biosphere from which they came…the plants, mountains, etc. Without that up close and personal experience, everything I tried to write about the subject would be parroting someone else.
“I have all sorts of mementoes. People would say, ‘This is the tree you use when you have a tooth injury.’ So I’d take a leaf and keep it in between the pages of one of my books. People were so helpful and generous.”
So now Hufford is busy putting it all together in a way that makes sense.
“My project started out in part as…’Let’s look at this from a Western medical perspective and see how it does and look at the research and see what’s been studied and what hasn’t been,’ but I didn’t have the time or manpower to do all of that, so it became a lot more cultural and about how medicine evolved and where they think it’s going now that Western/Occidental medicine is integrating and becoming accessible to their cultures.
“Some villages I visited didn’t have electricity, running water, or anything else besides their goats and water buffalo and the corn they grow, but they now have penicillin. It’s amazing because it saves them from so many things that can kill them. But is it any better than the herb that their grandparents used? I don’t know and I don’t want to make a value judgment on that. I think that regardless of mechanism, even considering the placebo effect, if something makes people feel better or heals them in any way, then that’s an acceptable alternative.”