|photo taken by ana traina|
Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Impossible, Impractical and Certainly Out of the Question --
Curious Cures -- Or not!
The world around us is a giant first aid cabinet, if we only knew how to use it. There are plants which can cure cancer and fungi that produce antibiotics, even armadillos can help us fight leprosy. However, to try and investigate every living thing would be a ginormous task.
However, there is a little-tapped bucket of wisdom we can draw from; our ancestors knew a lot more than maybe they are given credit for, passing on much of their knowledge orally. What survives of this oral tradition is dying out, though there are echoes of what was once known in a few important texts from times past.
Here are just a few curious cures from the ancients - some which we now know to be medically sound and others we really should leave in the past!
The Pharaohs’ Pharmaceuticals
The Ancient Egyptians were the first people to start recording their medical wonders. Papyri dating back to 2000 to 1600 BCE contain everything from the weird to the wonderful. For example, how about this:
A cure for lesion of the skin: After the scab has fallen off put it on scribe’s excrement, mix in fresh milk and apply as a poultice.
With advice like this is it any wonder traditional practices were mocked. This is definitely one best left in the dungeon! However, a similarly comical sounding cure for cataracts shouldn’t be so lightly tossed aside.
A cure for cataracts: Mix brain of tortoise with honey. Place on the eye and say a prayer.
I’m not sure how the brain would help and I’d be very suspicious about using a variation that contained human brains. But the honey part, now that’s a different story.
The Egyptians used honey to dress wounds as well as treat illnesses of the eye, for sore throats and digestive ills. Modern clinical trials have found honey really does help. It is a natural antibiotic and it helps heal infected wounds stopping the advance of infection. Honey reduces inflammation, speeds up the healing process, negating the need for plastic surgery. Positive results have also been found in the use of honey to treat eye infections.
The Ancient Egyptians also used to apply moldy bread to open wounds to prevent infections. We now know that one of the molds present produces penicillin naturally – but it took nearly 4,000 years for science to work that out.
Hippocratic Headache Pills
Hippocrates was a Greek physician who lived around 400 BCE. He is referred to as the Father of Medicine and is credited as being the first physician to reject the superstitions and beliefs that the Gods caused illness.
One of Hippocrates’ remedies was the prescription of the bark and leaves of the willow tree to relieve pain and fever, a cure which was still going strong two thousand years later.
In 1763, Reverend Edward Stone from Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, noted the effectiveness of willow in bringing down a fever, showing how Hippocrates’s prescription was used for centuries.
It was early in the nineteenth century that salicylic acid was first isolated from willow and meadowsweet, another folk remedy, and identified as a useful ingredient. Salicylic acid subsequently was used as a pain reliever, but had unfortunate side effects such as bleeding, gastric irritation, and even death if given in large enough amounts.
In 1853 a French scientist, Charles Frederic Gerhardt, produced acetyl salicylic acid for the first time. This was eventually marketed by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer under the trade name of Aspirin: A- for acetyl, -spir- from the Latin name for meadowsweet, and -in, just because that was a common ending for drugs at the time.
The Medieval Myddfai
Rhiwallon and his sons lived during the thirteenth century in Myddfai, West Wales. They were physicians to a warrior named Rhys Gryg and meticulously recorded a collection of useful medical treatments that dated back hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
The Red Book of Hengest, now kept in Jesus College, Oxford, is one copy of their collection, which contains suggestions for treatments for all kinds of medical problems, including ones that were of a, errr... delicate nature; anal warts for instance:
Certain warts will often form about the anus. The best way to remove them, is to dig them out with cold iron, afterwards cauterising their seat, and anointing the same with honey.
Holy Zeus, Ouch!!! But there's that super sticky sweet stuff again – healing honey! Clever little buzzers those bees! Now, once you'd had your anal warts removed, you'd need some help to sleep of course. But how? The Myddfai had the answer for that too:
Poppy heads bruised in wine, will induce a man to sleep soundly.
This recipe is very similar to the ‘liquid laudanum’ prepared by the seventeenth century British physician Thomas Sydenham. He introduced the use of opium into medical practice; opiate painkillers are still very important in medicine today.
The use of herbal remedies carried on unabated through the centuries, after all people had no modern drugs to rely on.
The rich Harbord family had owned the Gunton Estate in Norfolk since the 1670s. Members of the family kept the Gunton Household book during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It now lives in the church of St Peter Mancroft in Norwich, England. Inside can be found a host of recipes; one particularly eye-catching one is this:
For a sore brest yt is Painfull knotted and yet white and hard. Take flaz...and upon it...ye herb periwinkle, and fume it over Frankincense and apply it hot morning and evening renew it as ye herb away continue this for sometime and it will take ye pain quite away and disperse ye knots. Prov’d by Mrs. Bacon of Ipswich.
The periwinkle belongs to the plant genus Vinca from which the vinca-alkaloids are nowadays extracted. These are used in the modern day treatment of childhood leukemia, arteriosclerosis and even some types of dementia. What a good thing that science has winkled those chemicals out!
It’s true that there are some very bizarre remedies in the old records, but there are also some gems too - gems that have actually led to some pretty amazing medical breakthroughs.