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BY-NC-ND 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter 2020

Could Medieval Medicine Help the Fight Against Antimicrobial Resistance?

From the book Making the Medieval Relevant

  • Freya Harrison and Erin Connelly


The emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, combined with a severely stalled discovery pipeline for new antibiotics being developed, has the potential to undo the advances in infection control achieved in the last century. One way around this impasse might be to re-explore the medicinal practices of the medieval world. Why? This is because although the medieval world was ignorant of so much of modern theory, it seems that centuries of practice by medieval doctors could have produced some treatments for infections that were effective. These could contain antimicrobial compounds suitable for development into antibiotics. Our interdisciplinary team, initially based at the University of Nottingham, tested an eyesalve described in the tenth century Anglo-Saxon ‘Bald’s Leechbook’ with startling results. By following the recipe as closely as possible, we created a cocktail that can kill one of the most common causes of eye infections, the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. More significantly, Bald’s eyesalve can kill a range of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This chapter details our team’s initial findings and places them in the context of an interdisciplinary analysis of how medieval doctors used the materia medica available to them. We present novel results confirming the reliability of Bald’s eyesalve as an anti-Staphylococcal agent. Further, we demonstrate the potential of ‘big data’ approaches to turn medical texts into predictive databases for selecting natural materials for antibiotic testing. Finally, we present our work as an example of how interdisciplinary dialogue can significantly advance scholarship.

© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Munich/Boston
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