Medieval Cure for Antibiotic-Resistant MRSA

Updated on January 4, 2018
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Science graduate and business advisor, health educator and author, Beth writes articles on a wide variety of subjects.

Medieval Leechbook containing medical charms and recipes,
Medieval Leechbook containing medical charms and recipes, | Source

1,000-Year-Old Medicine

There is growing alarm about the increasing number of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Antibiotics revolutionized medicine in the 20th century. When used correctly, antibiotics kill 99% of bacteria. Unfortunately, their overuse and abuse have resulted in mutant strains of bacteria developing which are resistant to them.

1,000 years ago, doctors and apothecaries used a mixture of charms and herbal remedies to treat illness. Some patients got better, and some did not; successful medicine was part-belief, part lucky guess. The medieval physicians wrote down their recipes in manuscripts called Leechbooks. One of the most famous is Bald’s Leechbook. How to Cure the Plague: And Other Curious Remedies gives examples of this and other remedies of the period. The medieval cures may sound ridiculous to modern ears, but some of them did actually work.

In their quest to find solutions to the menace of antibiotic resistance, scientists are examining these ancient recipes more closely. They hope to be lucky enough to discover ways to fight bacterial infections that were previously known about but have been ignored in recent times.

Modern historians have been translating the Latin and Medieval manuscripts into formulas that can be tested using present-day science. A network of academic researchers on both sides of the Atlantic are working on the AncientBiotics Project to rediscover old cures to help fight disease today.

Penicillin is a beneficial mold that kills harmful bacteria.
Penicillin is a beneficial mold that kills harmful bacteria. | Source

Antibiotics as Miracle-Worker

The first antibiotic, Penicillin, was discovered in 1928 and developed for clinical use by the mid-1940’s. Before this, simple bacterial infections killed millions. In the US in the early 20th century, between 60 to 90 women in every 10,000 childbirths died. With the use of antibiotics, post-1945, this figure declined by more than 99%. Fewer than 1 in 10,000 women now die in the US from childbirth-related causes.

There is a downside to this amazing story of modern medicine. Less than 70 years since the discovery of Penicillin and mankind has already squandered the power of this miracle drug. Overuse and misuse of antibiotics have led to bacteria becoming resistant to their deadly power.

Studies Warn Of Dangerous Overuse Of Antibiotics

Overuse of Antibiotics Leads to Bacterial Resistant MRSA

Patients see antibiotics as a cure-all and demand them from their doctors even when their illness is viral rather than bacterial. (Antibiotics are only effective against bacteria, not viruses.) In addition, the use of antibiotics in agriculture (food production) has become common. Farmers routinely dose their livestock with antibiotics as a precaution against their animals becoming sick. The result is that some bacteria have developed immunity to the destructive power of antibiotics. One of these is MRSA which is also known as the hospital superbug.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections.

Antibiotics Have Been Over-Prescribed

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Old remedies to cure disease are making a come-back.
Old remedies to cure disease are making a come-back. | Source

A Medieval Remedy For Modern-Day Superbugs?

The clock is being turned back to when an infected cut could mean death from sepsis. Our only hope is to find a new method of fighting bacterial infections. The good news is that progress on this matter has already been made. A remarkable partnership between historians and scientists researching early medieval anti-infection remedies may provide a breakthrough.

The research project involves a collaboration between scientists in molecular microbiology and historians of medieval history. The results so far look promising. Dr. Freya Harrison, Dr. Christina Lee, and Dr. Steve Diggle from Nottingham University, UK describe the AncientBiotics Project in the video below.

The AncientBiotics Project

Bald’s Leechbook Recipe

A 1,000-year-old recipe containing garlic, leeks, ox gall, and wine is being tested by scientists for its antimicrobial properties. It was found in Bald’s Leechbook (the original copy of which can be viewed at The British Library, London, UK). The research is still in its early stages but the team of microbiologists from Nottingham University, UK and Texas Tech, US say the results so far are “astonishing”.

The medieval eye salve the team is testing has proved to be effective in killing 90% of the hospital superbug Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). MRSA is one of the most common antibiotic-resistant bacteria encountered by health professionals.

Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus bacteria (MRSA).
Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus bacteria (MRSA). | Source

The rise of antibiotic resistance in pathogenic bacteria and the lack of new antimicrobials in the developmental pipeline are key challenges for human health. There is a pressing need to develop new strategies against pathogens because the cost of developing new antibiotics is high and eventual resistance is likely.

— Dr. Harrison, Nottingham University

The Future is Bleak Without New Antibiotics

Life without reliable antibiotics would be grim. People living in developed countries would find their life expectancy rates drop dramatically. Health outcomes for could return to the 1920’s. Professor Neil Woodford, from the UK’s Health Protection Agency's antimicrobial resistance unit gives an example. "You could be gardening and prick your finger on a rose bush, get a bacterial infection and go into hospital and doctors can't do anything to save your life. You live or die based on chance.” Hygiene will become essential to society’s wellbeing. Simple measures like washing your hands after using the toilet or before preparing food could mean the difference between falling ill or remaining healthy.

Keep illness and bacteria at bay with regular hand washing.
Keep illness and bacteria at bay with regular hand washing. | Source

Research Source

Freya Harrison (a), Aled E. L. Roberts (a), Rebecca Gabrilska (b), Kendra P. Rumbaugh (b), Christina Lee (c), Stephen P. Diggle (c). “A 1,000-Year-Old Antimicrobial Remedy with Antistaphylococcal Activity.” mBio Journal of the American Society for Microbiology Vol 6 No 4: 11 August 2015

(a) Centre for Biomolecular Sciences, School of Life Sciences, University of Nottingham, UK. (b) Department of Surgery, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Texas, US. (c) School of English and Centre for the Study of the Viking Age, University of Nottingham, UK.


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  • ian 12am profile image

    Ian Batanda 8 months ago

    It's time for scientists to embrace traditional and ancient healing techniques in order to address the issues of bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Stronger modern antibiotics are more toxic to the body and prolonged use is detrimental. Am curious about antibiotics as potential carcinogens

  • Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

    Beth Eaglescliffe 8 months ago from UK

    Copper is also involved in this recipe. The Anglo-Saxon salve I refer to is kept in a copper vessel for nine days to allow it to mature. The wine in the mix converts into vinegar. Both vinegar and copper are now known to have antibacterial properties.

  • Nell Rose profile image

    Nell Rose 8 months ago from England

    Leek, check.....Garlic...check...ox gall er no! I used to take garlic tablets especially when I went on vacation, totally trust their worth. so interesting, and I actually wrote a similar thing, but its about how a girl discovered copper in pj's for hospital actually killed of the mrsa, its been used for centuries, great stuff! nell