Researchers at the University of Nottingham have made an astonishing discovery that a 10th century Anglo-Saxon potion for curing styes can also cure the brutal hospital superbug MRSA. While the ingredient list reads like a witch’s brew—cropleek, garlic, wine and oxgall—the resulting self-sterilizing concoction has performed surprisingly well in tests to treat MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria that is the scourge of hospitals.
The discovery is highly reminiscent of a popular current meme detailing a ‘short history of medicine’ (though admittedly, the dates are a bit off):
2000 B. C. – Here, eat this root.
1000 A. D. – That root is heathen. Here, say this prayer.
1850 A. D. – That prayer is superstition. Here, drink this potion.
1940 A. D. – That potion is snake oil. Here, swallow this pill.
1985 A. D. – That pill is ineffective. Here, take this antibiotic.
2000 A. D. – That antibiotic is artificial. Here eat this root.
The old English document that the potion comes from—Bald’s Leechbook—is, according to the University of Nottingham “widely thought of as one of the earliest known medical textbooks and contains Anglo-Saxon medical advice and recipes for medicines, salves and treatments.” There are a lot of recipes for old salves out there, so how did this particular one make it from Dark Age script to modern medical testing?
Largely, that comes down to Dr. Christina Lee, associate professor in Viking Studies and member of the University of Nottingham’s Institute for Medieval Research. Dr. Lee translated the text for the potion from the original manuscript, which is housed at the British Library, and thought that the medieval disinfectant—developed long before there was any understanding of germ theory—bore closer inspection.
In partnership with the University’s Centre for Biomolecular Sciences, the potion was recreated. It turns out it actually wasn’t that difficult to put together; two species of heritage Allium—selected from onion, garlic and leek—are pounded together, with an organic vintage wine from a historic English vineyard and oxgall. Oxgall, believe it or not, is pretty readily available—cow bile salts are sold for use by those who’ve had their gallbladder removed.
While the original recipe called for the concoction to be mixed in a brass vessel, the researchers used a glass vessel that contained brass squares. As per the original recipe, the mixture was allowed to “fester” for nine days. At the end of those nine days it was observed that the mixture was self-sterilizing, and had destroyed the soil bacteria on the Allium roots.
Four separate fresh batches of the mixture were then created and tested on artificial wound areas made in collagen that were infected with MRSA. Individually the ingredients had no effect, but in their combined form “the Staphylococcus populations were almost totally obliterated: about one bacterial cell in a thousand survived.” Texas Tech University was then able to replicate these findings.
In a press release, Dr. Lee expressed hope for the use of these age-old remedies: “Given that these remedies were developed well before the modern understanding of germ theory, this poses two questions: How systematic was the development of these remedies? And how effective were these remedies against the likely causative species of bacteria? Answering these questions 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.”