How a 14th Century Manuscript Could Solve Our Antibiotic Crisis

CC BY 2.0. Lilium medicinae

Researchers are poring over an important medieval medical text with 360 recipes, many of which might have successfully fought infection long before modern science.

Antibiotic resistance and the dawn of superbugs give rise to all kinds of horror movie scenarios. At this point, an estimated 700,000 people die each year from drug-resistant infections. And with the discovery of new antibiotics sluggish at best, by 2050 some 10 million people could die annually without some kind of breakthrough.

And with that in mind, some experts, instead of looking into the future of medicine, are looking into the past.

From the “everything old is new again” file, an international team of medievalists, microbiologists, medicinal chemists, parasitologists, pharmacists and data scientists believe that answers to the antibiotic crisis could potentially be found in medical history. And we’re talking bona fide history, like, 700-years-ago history.

Erin Connelly, the CLIR-Mellon Fellow for Data Curation in Medieval Studies at University of Pennsylvania, is part of the “Ancientbiotics team” and writes in The Conversation, “with the aid of modern technologies, we hope to unravel how premodern physicians treated infection and whether their cures really worked.”

What we already know is that the great medical minds in history had a lot figured out without the advantages of modern medicine. The Ancientbiotics team conducted one fascinating study in which a 10th-century cure for a stye – an eyesalve from the wonderful Bald’s Leechbook – was recreated and to the surprise of all, found to kill 90 percent of the dreadful antibiotic-resistant methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – otherwise known as the hospital superbug MRSA. The mixture of odd ingredients stewed in a brass vessel for nine days had the same efficacy as vancomycin, the antibiotic that is used for MRSA.

Meanwhile, chemist Tu Youyou won a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for a novel malaria therapy inspired by ancient Chinese literature on herbal medicine.

Now the team has their sights set on the Lylye of Medicynes, which Connelly explains is a 15th-century Middle English translation of the Latin Lilium medicinae, a significant work from 1305 written by an important medieval physician named Bernard of Gordon. The Lilium medicinae was a go-to medical text up until the 17th century.

Connelly has been working on the Lylye of Medicynes with incredible attention to detail. With its 360 recipes and thousands of ingredients, she has copied the text and given it a modern edit to end up with 600 pages of word-processed text. Furthermore, she writes:

I loaded the Middle English names of ingredients into a database, along with translations into modern equivalents, juxtaposed with relationships to recipe and disease. It is very time-consuming to format medieval data for processing with modern technologies. It also takes time to translate medieval medical ingredients into modern equivalents, due in part to multiple synonyms as well as variations in modern scientific nomenclature for plants. This information has to be verified across many sources.

And now they have a database to find mixes of ingredients and methods that are mentioned repeatedly to treat infectious diseases. The hope is that the database will reveal new recipes and ingredients to test and analyze in an endeavor to create innovative antibiotics efficient enough to fight the bacteria we’re currently doing battle with. (And in the meantime, adjusting our approach to how we use antibiotics in the first place could go a long way in helping the problem, see Sweden.)

Connelly concludes that, “It could also deepen our understanding of how medieval practitioners 'designed' recipes. Our research is in the beginning stages, but it holds exciting potential for the future." And if the eyesalve from Bald’s Leechbook is any indication, medieval medicine could have a life-saving renaissance.