10th-Century Anglo Saxon Potion Kills MRSA Superbug

CC BY 2.0. Wikimedia Commons

A microbiologist and an Anglo Saxon scholar decided to test a recipe from an Old English medical compendium called Bald's Leechbook, what they found surprised everyone.

While eye of newt is not called for, a recipe including cropleek, garlic, wine and bullocks gall – to be mixed in a brass vessel and allowed to fester for nine days – seems to have some kind of medieval magic going on.

A modern-day recreation of the remedy once used to treat styes was concocted by microbiologist Freya Harrison from the University of Nottingham, who met the challenge of sourcing the curious ingredients.

“Work and 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 a leek, put this then into a brazen vessel," instructs the recipe, translated by scholar Dr. Christina Lee. "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 with a feather to the eye; the best leechdom.”

For the "eye salve for a wen" do-over, modern crop varieties of garlic and leeks were passed over for heritage varieties, and the wine came from an organic vintage from a historic English vineyard. Brass vessels were swapped with glass bottles with squares of brass immersed; bullocks gall was easy, oddly enough, as cow bile salts are sold as a supplement for those who have their gallbladders removed.

After the requisite nine days of brewing, the researchers found that the remedy had decimated the soil bacteria introduced by the leek and garlic.

"It was self-sterilizing," says Harrison. "That was the first inkling that this crazy idea just might have some use."

Next the potion was tested on soft tissue infected with the dreadful antibiotic-resistant methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – otherwise known as the hospital superbug MRSA. The goop killed 90 percent of the bacteria, the same efficacy as vancomycin, the antibiotic that is used for MRSA.

The ingredients were not effective until they were all brought together properly – leading the researchers to ponder whether the ingredients work in synergy or if they in fact create new compounds.

"The big challenge is trying to find out why that combination works," says Steve Diggle, another of the researchers.

If the ancient concoction does indeed lead to new drugs, Diggle says they might be employed to fight difficult skin infections such as those that cause foot ulcers in people with diabetes. "These are usually antibiotic-resistant," he says.

You can see a video of the researchers working on translating the text and describing their wonderful discovery below; and more on the research at the University of Nottingham website.