Medieval physicians get a lot of guff for their prescriptions, which were often based on now-discredited Greek humor theory or astrology.
However, a lot of their medicines were based on experience, too, and some of them work quite well.
So, in the desperate search for something that kills antibiotic-resistant MRSA dead but doesn’t kill the patient, medical science has gone back to examine medieval ointments and salves.
It now appears that “Bald’s eyesalve,” a 10th century Saxon mix of garlic, wine, leek or onion juice, oxgall, and brass chemical byproducts, does kill 99.99% of MRSA on mouse skin samples, when applied topically. (Which is to say that they removed the skin from the mice and gave it MRSA, not that they gave MRSA to the mice.) They also tested versions which contained only one or two of the main ingredients, or only water cooked in the brass vessel, or only versions without the special instructions. All of these did little good, whereas the full Bald’s eyesalve combo kicked the heck out of MRSA. Bald’s eyesalve was also remarkable for being able to breach the sticky biofilm coating which protects MRSA, and then kill all but 1 cell out of every 1000 cells of MRSA.
WITHIN 24 HOURS!!!!
The study was then replicated in the US with equally spectacular testtube results.
They then tested both fresh batches and batches that had been kept in the fridge for longer and longer periods of times, and all the batches retained effectiveness.
The AncientBiotics Project includes work by the English faculty who teach Old English. So there! Ha! This video contains more info than the news stories. It is amazing!
Now, garlic and onion juice do irritate the skin as well as being smelly, but anything is better than having your flesh eaten away until you die.
Oxgall/oxbile is actually currently being used already by bacteriologists, although they fancy up the name so you won’t think they’re medieval. But it’s usually used to help grow stuff that does live in stomachs, not to kill things off that don’t live in stomachs!
But it’s good to know, if you someday end up having to make medieval oxgall ink while trapped in a bacteriology laboratory. It’s also used in an alcohol mix to prepare paper to take ink (for ink art), or to marble paper (by “wetting” the ink colors so you can swish them around).
Obviously Bald’s eyesalve needs to be tested further on human skin samples before we talk about using it on live humans, but right now it probably beats doing nothing. And yeah, that combo would kill just about anything.
Scroll down for a kicky picture of the scientists. They freely admit they expected this crap would do nothing much at all, especially when put together according to the medieval recipe. They now think interdisciplinary science is cool.
Here’s Bald’s Leechbook, linked over at the British Library blog.
UPDATE: BBC article containing the scientists’ redaction of the Bald’s eyesalve recipe, just in case you catch MRSA:
– Equal parts onion (or leek) and garlic, minced and crushed in a mortar for two minutes
– Add 0.87 fl oz. of English wine (taken from a historic vineyard near Glastonbury).
– Dissolve bovine salts in distilled water. Add to mixture.
– Keep mixture chilled in a brass vessel for nine days at 4C. After that, decant into a glass jar.
UPDATE: More methodology info. The scientists got their oxgall from “cow’s bile salts” sold for internal use by people who’ve lost their gall bladders. It also talks about how they made the brass vessels in an easily sterilizable form, and about how they prepared the MRSA samples. The scientists also tested just how diluted the eyesalve could be and still work, and what effects a dilute solution had on bacteria. This helped them study the mechanism of how the eyesalve does its antibiotic thing.
UPDATE: US replication of the testing was carried out by Dr. Kendra Rumbaugh at Texas Tech University; she tested on actual living mice with MRSA-infected wounds. The mice took the treatment just fine. Yay! Apparently results weren’t quite as spiffy as in the testtube, but the stuff still worked “as good or better than” more conventional antibiotics. In fact, it worked better than vancomycin, the current antibiotic that is considered best against MRSA.
A translation of Bald’s Leechbook is included in T. O. Cockaygne’s three volume work Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England, an 1864 collection of early English science and medical documents. Bald’s Leechbook is Volume 2, and the eyesalve is in Chapter 2, on page 35, lines 3-10. Here’s a somewhat modernized adaptation of it by me:
“Work an eye salve for a wen:
Take cropleek and garlic, equal quantities of both; pound them well together.
Take wine and bullocks’ gall, equal quantities of both; mix with the leek.
Then put this into a brass vessel; let it stand nine days in the brass vessel.
Wring out through a cloth and clear it well.
Put it into a horn and apply it with a feather to the eye, around nighttime.
The best leechdom.
It’s a mixed bag, because the author was writing down pretty much every medicine he knew. So there are headache remedies that might work nicely even topically, headache remedies that would clear your sinuses beautifully, and then there’s burning a dog’s head. (Possibly an herb, possibly not.) For a head broken open so that the brain is exposed, Bald recommends a mixture of honey (kills germs and protects wounds) plus egg yolk (either as a binder or to make the honey thicker, although obviously bacteria can grow in it), and then leaving it bandaged up securely for three days (probably the best thing to do in medieval conditions). After three days, if there are signs of infection, Bald says you can’t heal it. (Well, no, probably not.) Bald also gives “gargle” recipes for infected mouths and teeth. He gives recipes for “mist in the eyes” (cataracts) that range from reasonable, to ground salt in honey. (Yeah, that might take off the cataracts, but it would be likely to destroy your eyes too….)
So Bald’s eyesalve is another medieval mixed bag, in its own spectacular way. I don’t know how it would work specifically on a wen or sty in one’s eye, but obviously it does work on skin infections.
UPDATE: After I posted the link to the translation of Bald’s Leechbook, a lot of journalists magically started quoting Cockaygne’s translation. Heh, heh. Well, I’m happy to help!