Image: William Woodville, Medical Botany, volume 3. London: James Phillips, 1793.
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Cures: Ancient and Modern…

Ancient medical text books may hold the key to fighting many modern diseases.

Image: William Woodville, Medical Botany, volume 3. London: James Phillips, 1793.
Image: William Woodville, Medical Botany, volume 3. London: James Phillips, 1793.

One of the great aspects of science is that it builds upon what has been done previously and makes it better. Well, that’s the plan. However, oftentimes much of what’s been done before may have been lost or at least hidden to the eyes of modern practitioners. This item underlines that latter point, and also demonstrates the value of going back – right back! – to one’s roots.

Reproducing a remedy for treating an eye infection contained in the ancient medical text known as Bald’s Leechbook, workers at the UK’s University of Nottingham were suitably surprised to discover that the potion was particularly effective at dealing with MRSA bacteria, killing up to 90% of the microbes. MRSA – methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – is a bacterium that causes human disease, ranging from mild to life-threatening, but which is resistant to a wide range of commonly used antibiotics, making it particularly difficult to treat. Unsurprisingly, given the interest in MRSA – which is often described as a ‘superbug’ – more studies are planned to develop this work to try to understand what is causing the potent bactericidal effect*.

Significantly, the leechbook remedy is effective at attacking biofilms of the microbe, which are particularly resistant to modern drugs. Although others may extol the virtues of the recipe’s use of a brass cooking vessel, or incorporation of such animal-derived ingredients as bull’s bile, in true botanical style we’re more excited about the role(s) that onion and garlic may play in the mélange, especially in view of that latter member of the onion family’s 20th century name of ‘Russian penicillin’ [Pharmacognosy Review 4: 106–110, 2010]. To have a remedy for treating MRSA ‘hidden in plain sight’ – albeit written in a language very few people can read nowadays – emphasises several important things. First, how specialist we’ve often become in the intervening centuries: How many scientists are there today who can read Old English? Second, science is multi-faceted, and we need many different skills (not least of which is ancient language expertise…) to work together for the greater good of all humanity. And, third, how there is a lot of value in those old texts: Wisdom of the Ancients if you will.

By way of a modern-day angle on this tale, Vimal Maisuria et al. announce the potential of phenolic-rich maple syrup extract (PRMSE) not only to enhance antibiotic kills of certain Gram-negative bacteria, but also to reduce bacteria biofilm formation. Both actions are relevant to the battle against bacteria waged daily by humankind. Whilst it remains to be seen whether PRMSE will be able to deal with MRSA as well as that recently investigated 10th century ‘potion’, it’s somewhat gratifying to think that a breakfast wherein maple syrup looms large might not only provide life-sustaining calories and nutrition, but also help to ward off infections. But, and arguably more important than that, together these two tales demonstrates that present-day science must not only look to the future, but must always keep an eye on the past.


* In an attempt to progress the work, crowd-funding was exploited to raise the extremely modest sum of £1000. As it turned out, the pledges substantially exceeded that sum and it has been decided to offer two undergraduate summer studentships rather than the one initially sought.


[Interestingly, Stephanie Paull’s article examining Anglo-Saxon medical texts states that the remedy used successfully against 21st century MRSA by the Nottingham group was also effective in its intended use – to treat a stye, which infection of an eyelash follicle is usually staphylococcal in nature… – Ed.]

Nigel Chaffey

I am a Botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international phytological organ for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I also continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience at Botany One. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. I'm happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

1 comment

  • This sort of news always makes me smile and sigh in equal measure. Old remedies are pooh-poohed virtually without fail by modern medicine (heavily dependent on drugs companies as it is), and yet a closer look nearly always proves they have more than a little validity.

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