Interesting Facts

Medieval Medicine: A 1,000-year-old onion and garlic salve kills modern bacterial superbugs

Scientists recreated an Anglo-Saxon manuscript-based 9th century onion and garlic eye remedy and discovered that it killed 90% of antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria (MRSA).

Researchers have successfully used a ninth-century Anglo-Saxon remedy for eye infections to kill tenacious bacteria cultures, much to their surprise and delight. The traditional treatment of wine, bile, onion, and garlic may be effective against today’s antibiotic-resistant superbugs like MRSA.

Bald’s Leechbook, also known as Medicinale Anglicum, is a medical text written in Old English that is thought to be one of the earliest books of medical advice. Scientists from the University of Nottingham’s Center for Biomolecular Sciences in the UK and Anglo-Saxon expert Dr. Christina Lee collaborated to create the 1,000-year-old cure found in this text.

Medieval Medicine 1000 year old onion and garlic 1
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

Garlic, onion (or leek), wine, and cow bile are listed as ingredients in a medieval recipe for salve used to treat eye infections, according to BBC News. The ingredients alone had little impact, but when combined, they were able to kill 90% of the methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria cultures, which astounded the scientists.

MRSA, which has been dubbed a “superbug” because it has developed a natural resistance to modern antibiotics, is a serious public health concern. It is also a challenging infection to treat.

According to a press release from the university, Dr. Freya Harrison, a microbiologist, “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 prevent the bacteria from damaging infected tissues. The ancient remedy reportedly outperformed contemporary conventional antibiotics against the bacteria, but we were absolutely astounded by how potent the combination of ingredients was.

The effectiveness of the treatment has also shown the researchers that Anglo-Saxon physicians may have used experimentation and observation, components of the contemporary scientific method, to develop their treatment.

Medieval Medicine 1000 year old onion and garlic 2
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 supporters of traditional medicines might note, “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,” according to NewScientist.

Although early medieval medicine took many forms, an early scientific method was also being used at the time. According to a piece on The Conversation, Europe experienced a “medical revolution” in the 11th century. Over 500 years old medical texts were being studied at the time. These writings have been recorded and taught. This ancient recipe was derived from such a text, making it much older than the Medicinale Anglicum from which it was taken.

After the successful salve study, the group identifying itself as AncientBiotics set out to compile a database of medieval medical formulas.

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