An Antibiotic from Bald’s Leech Book

Freya Harrison, a microbiologist and Research Fellow in the Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences at Nottingham University, is using the Crowdfunding site to help raise money into research on an antibiotic from the 1100 year old Bald’s Leechbook, an Anglo-Saxon medical compendium.

Who would have thought that a 9th century Anglo-Saxon medical book could be relevant to one of the biggest crises in modern medical history? Antibiotic resistance threatens to send many aspects of modern medicine back to the so-called Dark Ages.

Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to modern medicine as the bacteria that caused previously curable infections and diseases evolve to become resistant to our most powerful antibiotic medicines. Doctors and researchers are afraid that, in just a few years, operations that are commonplace today will become impossible due to the renewed threat of infection from such pathogens as MRSA, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, one of a number of previously treatable bacteria.

Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) naturally colonises your nose and skin, and almost everyone carries it. It becomes a problem if it enters the body through open skin wounds or gets through the mucosal barriers in your nose. It can cause boils and carbuncles, as well as much worse infections, but is usually easily treated using antibiotics related to Penicillin. The problems arise if you are infected with a strain that has evolved resistance to antibiotic medicines. This can cause serious, hard to treat, infections that can, in worst cases, result in disfigurement or even death. This isn’t actually a new problem. Antibiotic resistance has been known about ever since Penicillin, the first antibiotic, was first introduced in 1943. After just seven years, by 1950, 40% of S. aureus strains were found to be resistant, increasing to 80% by 1960.1 MRSA, the feared deadly strain of S. aureus, is resistant to almost all of the common antibiotics that work in a way similar to Penicillin, making it much harder to treat.

Antibiotic researcherFreya Harrison, part of a team led by Steve Diggle at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Nottingham University, is not only a skilled microbiologist but also a skilled Anglo-Saxon warrior. That is, she is part of the Wychwood Warriors, an Early Medieval re-enactment group based at Oxford University, and a member of The Vikings! the UK’s oldest and largest Viking re-enactment society. Many scientists have interests outside their main fields of study, and Freya has always loved history, especially the time when the Vikings were marauding, settling and trading throughout much of Europe and the British Isles. Medicine at that time was considered, at best, very basic and, at worst, quite dangerous for the poor patient.

I’m sure this is the sort of thing most people associate with Early Medieval medicine:

The woman who cannot nourish her child: let her then take milk from a cow of one colour in her hand and sip it up with her mouth and then go to running water and spit the milk into it and take up with the same hand a mouthful of the water and swallow it; let her then say these words:

“Everywhere I have carried the splendid stomach-strong
with this splendid well-fed [one]
which I wish to have for myself and go home.”

When she will go to the brook, she must not look about at all, nor when she will go back; and let her then go into another house than the one she left and take food there.2

After discussions with Dr Christina Lee, an Anglo-Saxon expert from the School of English, Freya became interested in a particular recipe from book 2 of Bald’s Leechbook:

Work an eye salve for a wen, take cropleek
and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound
them well together, take wine and bullocks gall, of
both equal quantities, mix with the leek, put this
then into a brazen 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 about night time apply
it with a feather to the eye; the best leechdom.3

“The best leechdom” – a bold statement that attracted their attention, specially as it uses commonly available ingredients that are currently being researched for their antibiotic effects. As well as its’ lifesaving potential I’m really excited that this collaboration between Humantities and Science departments at a university could have such far reaching consequences for medicine. Whoever says science and humanities have nothing to teach each other doesn’t understand how the world works.

The upshot from Freya’s research is that this remedy does actually work and, even more amazingly, it is as good, if not better, than some of our best antibiotic medicines today.

You can find out more details about this project, called the AncientBiotics Project, by clicking on the link. Here you can find out exactly how surprised Freya was when she found out what an effective antibiotic this remedy is, as well as more details of her research.

You can watch the Crowdfunder video below, or just click through the link direct to the webpage where I hope you’ll donate to fund this project. Remember, scientists today are working hard to find new antibiotic medicines before our current ones are rendered useless through the evolution of the microorganisms they were designed to kill. Giving as little as £5 could enable research that could one day save your life.

This discovery has also been featured in a New Scientist article that you can read here.

You can follow Freya Harrison, Christina Lee and Steve Diggle on Twitter by clicking on their names.

References

1. Chambers HF (2001). “The changing epidemiology of Staphylococcus aureus?”. Emerg Infect Dis 7 (2): 178–82. doi:10.3201/eid0702.010204. PMC 2631711.PMID 11294701.

2. Stephen Pollington (2000). Leechcraft, Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing, p235, Anglo-Saxon Books

3. Cockraine (1865). Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England, p35, London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, and Green.

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