1,000-Year-Old Saxon Remedy Kills Superbugs

This may not be the biggest news story of the day, but it must be the most curious. As you are no doubt aware, there is great concern over resistance to conventional antibiotics. “Superbugs” are developing that are not easily killed with known medicines. So someone at the University of Nottingham, in England, thought to try an ancient remedy: a salve for eye infections found in Bald’s Leechbook, a 10th century Saxon volume in the British Library. The results were surprising:

A one thousand year old Anglo-Saxon remedy for eye infections which originates from a manuscript in the British Library has been found to kill the modern-day superbug MRSA in an unusual research collaboration at The University of Nottingham.

Dr Christina Lee, an Anglo-Saxon expert from the School of English has enlisted the help of microbiologists from the University’s Centre for Biomolecular Sciences to recreate a 10th century potion for eye infections from Bald’s Leechbook, an Old English leatherbound volume in the British Library, to see if it really works as an antibacterial remedy. The Leechbook is widely thought of as one of the earliest known medical textbooks and contains Anglo-Saxon medical advice and recipes for medicines, salves and treatments.

Early results on the “potion”, tested in vitro at Nottingham and backed up by mouse model tests at a university in the United States, are, in the words of the US collaborator, “astonishing”. The solution has had remarkable effects on Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) which is one of the most antibiotic-resistant bugs costing modern health services billions.


So what exactly is the potion? It doesn’t contain eye of newt, but close:

The recipe calls for two species of Allium (garlic and onion or leek), wine and oxgall (bile from a cow’s stomach). It describes a very specific method of making the topical solution including the use of a brass vessel to brew it in, a straining to purify it and an instruction to leave the mixture for nine days before use.

There is much more at the link, also here:

“[W]e found that Bald’s eyesalve is incredibly potent as an anti-Staphylococcal antibiotic in this context,” Harrison said.

“We were going from a mature, established population of a few billion cells, all stuck together in this highly protected biofilm coat, to really just a few thousand cells left alive. This is a massive, massive killing ability.”

This is all via Dr. Judith Curry’s excellent web site.