9th century Anglo-Saxon potion kills modern hospital MRSA superbug

9th century Anglo-Saxon potion kills modern hospital MRSA superbug

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Scientists were “astonished” to find that a treatment for eye infections found in the 1,200 year old medical text ‘Bald’s Leechbook‘ almost completely wiped out staphylococcus aureus, otherwise known as MRSA.



The Old English ‘eye salve’ remedy was translated by University of Nottingham Anglo-Saxon expert Dr Christina Lee, as:

“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…”

Microbiologist Dr Freya Harrison and a team of scientists recreated the remedy using equal amounts of garlic and leek, finely chopped and crushed in a mortar.  They added English wine – taken from a historic vineyard near Glastonbury – and dissolved cow’s bile salts in distilled water.  As a “brass vessel” would be hard to sterilise, they used a glass bottle with squares of brass sheet immersed in the mixture and let stand chilled for nine days.

They found the remedy killed up to 90% of MRSA bacteria.

Dr Harrison said “We were absolutely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was.  It was self-sterilising.”

The team’s findings will be presented at the Annual Conference of the Society for General Microbiology.

The remedies in Bald’s Leechbook and other medieval medical texts could hold similar keys in the modern battle with anti-microbial resistance, and suggest that people were carrying out detailed scientific studies centuries before bacteria were discovered.

Bald’s Leechbook was possibly compiled under the influence of Alfred the Great’s educational reforms in the 9th century, and survives in only one manuscript in the British Library, London.  It prescribes the only known plastic surgery mentioned in Anglo-Saxon records: treatment for a hare lip.

Other recommended cures include: binding a stalk of crosswort to the head with a red kerchief for headache; treating chilblains with a mix of eggs, wine, and fennel root; and boiling the agrimony plant in milk for male impotence.

Not all the cures have a scientific basis: it recommends that a horse in pain be cured by  inscribing the words ‘bless all the works of the lord of lords’ on the handle of a dagger (the author adds that the pain may have been caused by an elf.)

Bald's Leechbook
Bald’s Leechbook

Source: New Scientist

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