Medieval Medicine: 1,000-year-old Onion and Garlic Salve Kills Modern Bacterial SuperBugs
To the surprise and excitement of researchers, a ninth century Anglo-Saxon treatment for eye infections has been used successfully to kill tenacious bacteria cultures. The ancient remedy consisting of onion, garlic, cow bile and wine might be an effective weapon against modern antibiotic-resistant superbugs such as MRSA.
Scientists from the University of Nottingham ’s Center for Biomolecular Sciences, UK, and Anglo-Saxon expert Dr. Christina Lee worked together to create the 1,000-year-old remedy found in Bald’s Leechbook, (also known as Medicinale Anglicum ) a medical text written in Old English believed to be one of the earliest-known books of medical advice.
Middle-English leech-book, containing medical receipts, including some charms; a Latin-English Glossary of herbs; short tracts on urines, the cure of wounds, uses of herbs, etc. Wikimedia Commons
The medieval recipe for salve used to treat eye infections lists as ingredients: garlic, onion (or leek), wine, and cow bile, reports BBC News . The scientists were astonished to find that the ingredients alone had little effect, but when combined they were effective at killing 90 percent of the methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria cultures.
MRSA is a serious public health concern; it is a difficult infection to treat, as it has naturally developed resistance to modern antibiotics, and has thus been given the classification of “superbug”.
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University microbiologist, Dr Freya Harrison says of the discovery in a University press release , “We thought that Bald’s eye salve might show a small amount of antibiotic activity, because each of the ingredients has been shown by other researchers to have some effect on bacteria in the lab—copper and bile salts can kill bacteria, and the garlic family of plants make chemicals that interfere with the bacteria’s ability to damage infected tissues. But we were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was.” The ancient remedy reportedly outperformed modern conventional antibiotics against the bacteria.
Further, the success of the remedy has demonstrated to the researchers that Anglo-Saxon physicians may have used observation and experimentation, processes of the modern scientific method, in order to come to their remedy.
Top: Physicians offer draughts of agrimony to two warriors to cure sword wounds. Lower portion: Physicians offer a draught of Cyclamine against serpent bite. The herb which forms the ingredient of the draught is at the side of the picture; in it the English scribe has written Arnote i.e. “Earth-nut”. This name was applied by the Anglo-Saxons to a variety of bulbous plants. [This file comes from Wellcome Images , a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.]
As proponents of ancient medicines might point out, “it wouldn't be the first modern drug to be derived from ancient manuscripts – the widely used antimalarial drug artemisinin was discovered by scouring historical Chinese medical texts,” reports NewScientist.
Early Medieval medicine had many guises but it was also a time when an early scientific method was beginning to be employed. As an article published on The Conversation reported, 11 th century Europe saw a ‘medical revolution’. At this time medical texts of over 500 years old were studied. These texts were transcribed and taught. It is from such a text that this ancient recipe was derived, meaning the recipe is likely much older than the Medicinale Anglicum it came from.
Following up on the successful salve study, the team calling theselves AncientBiotics embarked on compliling a database of medieval medical recipes.
Erin Connelly wrote of the hopes of the group:
During our eyesalve study, chemist Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of a new therapy for malaria after searching over 2,000 recipes from ancient Chinese literature on herbal medicine. Is another “silver bullet” for microbial infection hidden within medieval European medical literature?
Certainly, there are medieval superstitions and treatments that we would not replicate today, such as purging a patient’s body of pathogenic humors. However, our work suggests that there could be a methodology behind the medicines of medieval practitioners, informed by a long tradition of observation and experimentation.
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Scientists now are looking to expand their understanding of medieval medical practice and the processes behind it, as they existed in a time before there was knowledge of germ theory or scientific method as we know it today.
In the University press release, Dr. Lee says new research “will greatly improve our understanding of medieval scholarship and medical empiricism, and may reveal new ways of treating serious bacterial infections that continue to cause illness and death.”
Findings by the team are due to be presented at a conference of the Society for General Microbiology in Birmingham, UK this week.
Scanning electron micrograph of bacteria: Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Public Domain
Featured Image: The written instructions for an onion and garlic eye salve from the Anglo-Saxon manuscript Bald’s Leechbook. The remedy was found to kill MRSA bacteria. Credit: The British Library Board
By Liz Leafloor