Medieval Eye Infection Remedy Kills MRSA
Who would have thought that something as simple as an eye remedy could be the key to killing superbugs resistant to antibiotics, like MRSA?
But that’s what scientists have found after recreating a treatment for eye infections found in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript.
The manuscript in question is called Bald’s Leechbook; a leather-bound book detailing remedies for various ailments. It is usually kept in the British Library and dates back to the 9th century, making it more than a thousand years old!
The Leechbook is one of the earliest examples of a medical textbook, containing advice for treatments, medicines, and salves. One such salve, Bald’s Eye Salve, was being put under the microscope, so to speak, with the recipe being followed exactly as translated by Anglo-Saxon specialist Dr Christina Lee.
“Medieval leech books and herbaria contain many remedies designs to treat what are clearly bacterial infections,” Dr Lee explained, going on to list other health problems for which the book offers treatment advice.
Dr Lee, from the University of Nottingham, found that the recipe was relatively simple. It involves rather mundane ingredients such as garlic, either onion or leeks, and English wine, but with added “oxgall”, which is the bile from a cow’s stomach.
However, the method of preparation was very specific, citing the use of a brass vessel for brewing and a strainer to purify the concoction. The instructions also indicated that the mixture had to be left for nine days before it could be used.
A microbiology team from the university made four separate tests of the salve. They also created a control treatment, using just the distilled water mentioned in the recipe in the brass vessel, without any of the other ingredients.
With each test, the individual ingredients were tested against the MRSA bacteria, as was the control solution and the finished salve they had made.
As was expected, when the ingredients were applied on their own, they all only had a small effect on the bacteria. But when they were combined, the scientists were in for a shock.
“We thought that Bald’s Eye Salve might show a small amount of antibiotic activity,” said Dr Freya Harrison, lead researcher in the lab. “But we were completely blown away by just how effective the combination of ingredients was.”
The remedy was found to kill up to 90% of the bacteria!
Dr Harrison explained that the project was a way of exploring new approaches to modern health care, using medieval remedies with ingredients that were found to kill bacteria or affect their ability to cause infection.
“I still can’t quite believe how well this one-thousand-year-old antibiotic actually seems to be working,” she exclaimed. “When we first got the results, we were just utterly dumbfounded. We did not see this coming at all.”
Dr Steve Diggle is another member of the team, and he agreed that he didn’t expect anything of this magnitude to happen either. “I was genuinely amazed,” he said.
According to Dr Lee, there are many other medieval books along the same lines as Bald’s Leechbook. These books contain treatments for what appear to be bacterial infections, but years before bacteria were even discovered.
“We were genuinely astonished at the results of our experiments in the lab,” she said. “The potential of these texts to contribute to addressing the challenges cannot be understood without the combined expertise of both the arts and science.”
The findings were replicated by Dr Kendra Rumbaugh, a microbiologist from Texas Tech University. She explained that MRSA and other such wound infections are very difficult to treat and that before she was able to replicate the results herself, she was sceptical about the outcome.
“However,” Dr Rumbaugh concluded, “this ancient solution performed better than the current gold standard, and killed more than 90% of the MRSA.”
The findings were presented to the Annual Conference of the Society for General Microbiology in Birmingham, which started on March 30.
Here’s the recipe (though, we don’t recommend trying this at home!):
- Equal amounts of garlic and another Allium (onion or leek), finely chopped and crushed in a mortar for two minutes
- Add 25ml (0.87 fl oz) of English wine – taken from a historic vineyard near Glastonbury
- Dissolve bovine salts in distilled water, add and then keep chilled for nine days at 4°C