Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Anglo-Saxon Medicine

By now you may have heard about the team from Nottingham that tested an Anglo-Saxon remedy for an eye-stye and found that it killed methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. There's an article in New Scientist about the research here .

Some readers may remember that ten years ago our Anglo-Saxon Medicine research group at Wheaton tested the same remedy. The article is on Google Books at this URL. Full cite is: Barbara Brennessel, Michael D.C. Drout and Robyn Gravel. “A Re-Assessment of the Efficacy of Anglo-Saxon Medicine,” Anglo-Saxon England 34 (2005): 183-95.

We, however, found that the compounded recipe did not kill bacteria. Although the ingredients (garlic, leeks, ox gall, wine and leached copper) were efficacious on their own, when we let them sit in the copper vessel for nine days, as the recipe says, they turned into a loathsome slime that did not inhibit bacterial growth. We used the Kirby-Bauer method of growing "bacterial lawns" of Staphyloccus aureus in petri dishes and then placing filter-paper disks impregnated with the remedy to see if they produced a zone of inhibition greater than 10 mm. They did not.

So why are our results at such variance with that of the Nottingham team?

One major possibility is that they tested the efficacy of the remedy in vivo on strips of infected mouse skin, while all of our testing was in vitro.

(For the first and probably the last time in my life, I am wishing that there had been some infected mouse skin lying around the lab).

It also may be that some small variable turned out to be important. Perhaps we had microbial contamination of the remedy where they did not (or vice versa). I'm very excited to read their paper.

And to the question that a few people have asked: if I'm upset that this group got the glory of finding something that is about as effective as Vancomycin on MRSA. I can honestly say "no", that rather, I'm excited to see follow up and improvement in human knowledge (though, honestly, that's probably because the team was led by a good friend of mine, Christina Lee -- if it had been someone I don't like....)

More importantly, this research demonstrates quite forcefully one of the major points of the 2005 paper: that there's an enormous amount of tacit information that is absolutely essential to the cultural practice but is not found in any recipe book. The things that go without saying, because any intelligent Anglo-Saxon læce would have known them, are those most likely to be lost over the centuries. It's very exciting when we can use scientific methods--or any approaches, really--to recover that lost knowledge.