Medieval Medicine: 1,000-year-old Onion and Garlic Salve Kills Modern Bacterial SuperBugs - RiseEarth

Medieval Medicine: 1,000-year-old Onion and Garlic Salve Kills Modern Bacterial SuperBugs

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by Liz Leafloor
Ancient Origins

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”.

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.

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
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