How a 14th Century Manuscript Could Solve our Antibiotic Crisis

Researchers are poring over an important medieval medical text with 360 recipes, many of which might have successfully fought infection long before modern science.

Antibiotic resistance and the dawn of superbugs give rise to all kinds of horror movie scenarios. At this point, an estimated 700,000 people die each year from drug-resistant infections. And with the discovery of new antibiotics sluggish at best, by 2050 some 10 million people could die annually without some kind of breakthrough.

And with that in mind, some experts, instead of looking into the future of medicine, are looking into the past.

From the “everything old is new again” file, an international team of medievalists, microbiologists, medicinal chemists, parasitologists, pharmacists and data scientists believe that answers to the antibiotic crisis could potentially be found in medical history. And we’re talking bona fide history, like, 700-years-ago history.

Erin Connelly, the CLIR-Mellon Fellow for Data Curation in Medieval Studies at University of Pennsylvania, is part of the “Ancientbiotics team” and writes in The Conversation, “with the aid of modern technologies, we hope to unravel how premodern physicians treated infection and whether their cures really worked.”

What we already know is that the great medical minds in history had a lot figured out without the advantages of modern medicine. The Ancientbiotics team conducted one fascinating study in which a 10th century cure for a stye – an eyesalve from the wonderful Bald’s Leechbook – was recreated and to the surprise of all, found to kill 90 percent of the dreadful antibiotic-resistant methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – otherwise known as the hospital superbug MRSA. The mixture of odd ingredients stewed in a brass vessel for nine days had the same efficacy as vancomycin, the antibiotic that is used for MRSA.

Meanwhile, chemist Tu Youyou won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for a novel malaria therapy inspired by ancient Chinese literature on herbal medicine.

Now the team has their sights set on the Lylye of Medicynes, which Connelly explains is a 15th-century Middle English translation of the Latin Lilium medicinae, a significant work from 1305 written by an important medieval physician named Bernard of Gordon. The Lilium medicinae was a go-to medical text up until the 17th century.

Connelly has been working on the Lylye of Medicynes with incredible attention to detail. With its 360 recipes and thousands of ingredients, she has copied the text and given it a modern edit to end up with 600 pages of word-processed text. Furthermore, she writes:

I loaded the Middle English names of ingredients into a database, along with translations into modern equivalents, juxtaposed with relationships to recipe and disease. It is very time-consuming to format medieval data for processing with modern technologies. It also takes time to translate medieval medical ingredients into modern equivalents, due in part to multiple synonyms as well as variations in modern scientific nomenclature for plants. This information has to be verified across many sources.

And now they have a database to find mixes of ingredients and methods that are mentioned repeatedly to treat infectious diseases. The hope is that the database will reveal new recipes and ingredients to test and analyze in an endeavor to create innovative antibiotics efficient enough to fight the bacteria we’re currently doing battle with. (And in the meantime, adjusting our approach to how we use antibiotics in the first place could go a long way in helping the problem, see Sweden.)

Connelly concludes that, “It could also deepen our understanding of how medieval practitioners ‘designed’ recipes. Our research is in the beginning stages, but it holds exciting potential for the future.” And if the eyesalve from Bald’s Leechbook is any indication, medieval medicine could have a life-saving renaissance.

Written by Melissa Breyer. Published with permission from Treehugger.

84 comments

Peggy B
Peggy B1 years ago

Noted

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Jerome S
Jerome S2 years ago

thanks

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for sharing.

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heather g
heather g2 years ago

It's worthwhile checking back in history....

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Julia R
Julia R2 years ago

Medical science has long abjured these herbal and apothecary medicines as quackery, and now they are realizing that this might not be the case at all and that true science involves keeping an open mind because that is what can really lead to new discoveries and cures!

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Julie D
Julie D2 years ago

Very interesting! I believe there are natural remedies for many things that are just as effective, sometimes more so, and far less harmful than pharmaceutical drugs. I have been an advocate of this after being my own guinea pig in this area with tremendous success. I have had such horrible experience with pharmacy drugs and so much benefit from natural remedies that I am loath to ever use pharmacy drugs anymore. It will be interesting to see what discoveries they make from this ancient manual. Lots of good stuff I am hoping!

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Brett Cloud
Brett Cloud2 years ago

Ty

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Brett Cloud
Brett Cloud2 years ago

Ty

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rosario p
rosario p.2 years ago

Modern science have forgotten the roots of their knowledge and catalog "folk medicine" as pure quackery without giving a chance of scientific verification. In the times we run this team have a new approach, an open mind and the courage to carry out by looking back to go forward. They will be surprised more than once.

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Magdalen B
Magdalen B2 years ago

Excellent.

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