Looking back at the history of medicine is usually an exercise in presentism. It is supremely interesting and plenty of fun to learn about the things that people used to think were medical problems (like hysterical, disobedient women) and the treatments they came up with to treat them (eye of newt, anyone?). The problem with presentism is that we assume modern medicine is better than what came before it, but the truth is, ancient doctors sometimes knew things that we have since forgotten. Just as ancient cultures were often better as sustainably making use of the environment than we are now, it should be no surprise that they were skillful at treating what ailed them.
A perfect example of ancient acumen popped up earlier this month in science news columns around the world as researchers and historians at the University of Nottingham in the UK cooked up an ancient brew to combat an infection that even modern meds have trouble fighting.
“Take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together… take wine and bullocks gall, mix with the leek… let it stand nine days in the brass vessel…” read the 1,000 year-old Anglo-Saxon text from which they pulled the recipe. The potion was used to treat “stye,” otherwise known as an infected eyelash follicle.
The bacteria at the heart of the infection is known today as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The key thing to note in that name is “methicillin-resistant,” meaning that the bacteria are of the sort that we learned about last year in our semi-fictional story about Curious Geoff and the Antibiotic-Resistant Superbug. So if our most powerful antibiotics today have a tough time with MRSA, how did the ancient remedy fair?
As you might have guessed based on the existence of this article, the answer is pretty damn well. It should be noted that the researchers needed to make a few modern revisions to the recipe. Garlic and leeks have changed a lot since the 9th century and brass vessels are both expensive and difficult to keep sterile (the researchers ended up using glass bottles with pieces of brass immersed in the other ingredients). In the end, however, the tweaks didn’t seem to reduce the effectiveness of their medieval gunk. The concoction killed 90% of MRSA bacteria, the same proportion as the conventional treatment that doctors use today to treat infections, called Vancomycin.
This isn’t the first time we have rediscovered an ancient medical treatment that rivals modern scientific wizardry. Artemisinin, a potent drug in the treatment of malaria was discovered by the Chinese military in the 1970's as they combed through ancient texts looking for treatments they could use to keep their Vietnamese allies healthy as they fought a war with the US. We also still use leeches to help relieve patients of infected blood. What this most recent discovery means, however, is that we might be able to pinpoint why it kills resistant bacteria and use that knowledge to develop treatments for other antibiotic-resistant infections.
As bacteria continue to evolve resistance to our best treatments, we will need all the help we can get. Some of the answers will likely come from nature as get better at making use of plants, soil bacteria, fungi, etc. But as counterintuitive as it might seem as we ponder the future of medicine, it occasionally pays to look deep into the past. You never know what you might discover if you keep an open mind.