Did Medieval Anglo-Saxons Cure MRSA?

Did Medieval Anglo-Saxons Cure MRSA?


Hey folks, In 1928 Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming was trying to grow Staphylococcus in his lab. A bacteria that’s found on our bodies all over the place. In our nose, armpits, some other places I won’t mention, really all over. However, if it gets into a cut, it can become deadly. He was not the cleanest scientist in the world and went on vacation leaving his petri dishes uncovered, and his window open. When he came back to clean it up, one of the petri dishes looked a little weird. Little dead zones littered what should have been a healthy bio-film. At the center of these dead zones was a strange mold. The mold was making something that killed the bacteria, what we would call penicillin. Diseases that plagued us as long as we had existed could finally be beaten. A fundamental change in the human experience. As Alex’s drug was paraded as the savior of mankind, even making the cover of Time. There began to be problems. Staph started to resist the penicillin before it even became public. With remarkable speed, this resistance covered the globe. It’s a living testament to the power of natural selection. Since then we have made countless antibiotics, and time and time again they become resistant. This has been made worse by over prescribing antibiotics, and using antibiotics preemptively when growing animals on crowded farms. That arms race I mentioned begins to slow down as drug companies realize there is not much money to be made in researching drugs that become useless after maybe a decade. Now we hear stories of the super bugs that resist everything we have to throw at it. In walks in some unlikely heroes, Anglo-Saxon historian Christina Lee, and microbiologist Freya Harrison. Freya Harrison studies how bacteria evolve during long infections, but has a side obsession with Viking reenactments, and Viking history. At the University of Nottingham, Freya began to learn Old English. She reached out to a reading group and met Christina. Christina Lee has a side interest in infectious diseases. The two of them became friends and began to look through medieval medical remedies. They look at something called Bald’s Leechbook. A remedy book over 1,100 years old. Its an old remedy book of potions, and ointments to heal any number of ailments in the middle ages. This involves things like remedies for demonic possession. They eventually came across one remedy called “the best medicine”. It was for infections around the eye, which in the days of houses full of wood smoke, were quite common. Today we call it a sty. What causes this infection? Our old friend Staphylococcus. They had to give it a try. The recipe? Garlic, an onion, cow bile, and wine. All mixed together in a brass or bronze pot, stored for 9 days, and strained through a cloth. Apply the liquid directly to the infected eye, with a feather. It seemed like a silly medieval recipe, but when applied to Staph, it was a massacre. The remedy really worked! They then tried it on the really nasty bug MRSA, an antibiotic resistant staph that has been one of the big super bugs. The remedy destroyed the MRSA, 90% of them. I should mention it hasn’t been tested on humans. Don’t do it at home! What this story really should make us do is rethink what we mean when we discuss technological progress. Something developed over a thousand years ago could beat bacteria we’re struggling with now. Maybe we should look at what seemed superstitious and silly, and look at it with new eyes. Make sure that everything means what we think it means. We need to do what historians always attempt to do and see the past from the eyes of people living in it, and not dismiss things that seem strange or silly to us. We dismissed native Americans that chewed tree bark for fever to find that the bark had the compound we now call aspirin. We also have begun to try using leeches and maggots again for medical treatment, so maybe it’s worth reconsidering. I am not talking about deferring to things we know don’t work, but at least give everything a try. Sometimes when we take a medicine out of circulation, resistance starts to wane. This is why the remedy worked so well. Maybe if we had an arsenal that we could circle in and out we might have one up on the bacteria. Societies around the world had different recipes and they might be worth investigating for real medical properties today. Should we spend the resources to mine the past for medical cures today? Do you think it’s a worthwhile endeavor? Let me know down in the comments, and come back in two weeks for another Step Back.

21 Replies to “Did Medieval Anglo-Saxons Cure MRSA?”

  1. At the very least we should reduce our use of antibiotics for things like factory farms. I feel like every week there's a new article from scientists blowing the whistle on antibiotic resistant bacteria.

  2. I found this channel half an hour ago, and again, and again I'm amazed at the quality of these videos. Good job.

  3. great channel! keep it up!!

    we dont even need to go back in history for these things. chinese and ayurvedic medicine are rich with untested remedies; western science refuses to take these things seriously. such a shame..

  4. +Step Back History This is really interesting. Ancient history seems to be filled with such marvels. I would like to cite here a physician called Sushruta who lived arounf 600 BCE. His treatise "Suśruta-saṃhitā " is considered one of the basics for Ayurveda. Doctors and researchers are starting to look into his methods more deeply.
    Maybe someday in the future you can do a video on him. 🙂
    I leave here a link to his Wikipedia page for anyone interested to know more about him :https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sushruta

  5. The idea of cycling remedies for bacterial infections reminds me of crop rotation. The dust bowl happened because growing one crop over and over depleted the soil's nutrients. Cycling crops allowed the nutrients to replenish. Applying the same logic to bacteria, if we use one type of antimicrobial for some time, then stop using it all together and switch to another. It might allow us to get an edge on bacteria once again.

  6. Sometimes, events of the past meet with interesting scientific elements. This series showcases when these two meet. Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6iuF6oOejI&list=PLnpoOo7lhNnE7wLQ6NKD92MV3u8sC5kN4

  7. cycling treatments would not work since immunity is still passed down. what works great is two things. 1 combine them, if your you mix two antibiotics together then the bacteria has to evolve 2 mutations at the same. 2 completely change the game and start using bacterophages to fight infections.

  8. I've always wondered something about 13th century medical gear. Could plague doctor masks have functioned as actual, if somewhat crude, gas masks if they were filled with charcoal instead of flowers?

  9. I just want to know, how did they get cow bile? Did they just have to wait for the animal to vomit? Did they make it vomit? Is that even what cow bile is?

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