Ancient Texts for the Treatment of Modern Diseases?

What is the first word that comes to your mind when you hear ancient texts? Some people would say history, whereas others, would say religion. Undoubtedly there is a wide spectrum based on which one can talk about ancient texts. However, this article will dive into the use of ancient texts and methods for the treatment of modern-day diseases. Wait, what? Yes, let us be the ones to break it to you that ancient texts from various places like Iran, India, and China, have written the recipes for some medicines that can be used to treat even modern-day diseases.

Professor Karl Wah-Keung, a neurobiologist leading a research team at Hong Kong Special Administrative Region University of Science and Technology believes that there could be about 100,000 formulas in Chinese medicine that go way back to 2000 years, drugs that have the potential to cure various illnesses like insomnia, depression, osteoporosis, etc. Based on ancient medical texts as well as folk remedies, professor Tu Youyou from Beijing was able to find a therapeutic treatment for Plasmodium falciparum that causes malaria in the year 1972. It comes as a surprise that 40% of China’s pharmaceutical market relies on traditional medicine with annual sales of  $21 billion USD. The use of traditional Chinese medicine is very common in China and other Asian countries, however, it is not as popular elsewhere partly due to the lack of strong evidence.

A glimpse from Egyptian medical papyri translated into English (Leake et al. 1952)

Well, other than China, Egypt uses ancient Egyptian text known as Egyptian medical papyri which gives a glimpse of all the medical procedures and practices in ancient Egypt. Starting from the diagnosis, disease treatment, remedies (both herbal and surgical) as well as “magical” procedures. Hard to believe isn’t it? Not so much if you lived in ancient times!

“Bald’s leech is an 1100-year-old English medical-text which holds the cures for stuff ranging from possession of the devil to some microbial infections.”

Let’s discuss a specific case, the Bald’s eyesalve – an ancient remedy for the bacterial infection that causes lumps in your eyes. The bacteria that cause these eye lumps are the antibiotic-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus. With minimal luck using modern antibiotics, some researchers have turned to historical texts to decipher potential therapies. Bald’s leech is an 1100-year-old English medical-text which holds the cures for stuff ranging from possession of the devil to some microbial infections. Microbiologists collaborated with historians to interpret the seemingly complicated recipe of Bald’s eyesalve, and arrived at this description; crushed garlic and a second Allium plant species (leeks and onions) with wine and ox gall (bile) all mixed up in a brass or bronze vessel for 9 days and nights (Harrison et al. 2015). All of these ingredients are known to have individual antimicrobial properties but this recipe tied them together in an apparent deadly combination. When this treatment was applied to cultures of S. aureus, the bacteria was repeatedly killed; what was more surprising was that this ancient mixture also killed antibiotic-resistant strains of S. aureus!

Facsimile of Bald’s eyesalve recipe (Harrison et al. 2015)

So does this mean that ancient remedies have potential in modern health care? Obviously there are complications that can arise. First of all, locating and deciphering such text can be a tricky task; there are so many ancient texts in innumerable languages that may not be in use today. Secondly, as mentioned in the Bald’s eyesalve study (Harrison et al. 2015), the recipe was not written with scientific precision in terms of the concentration of individual ingredients. Such historical texts can be vague or too difficult to translate accurately. Additionally, a good portion of medieval medicine involved astronomy and religious rituals as part of healing (Bovey 2015). In the modern world, it might not be the best idea to invest in a scientific project that includes these elements. Despite all these factors, studies such as the Bald’s eyesalve (Harrison et al. 2015) indicate that it could be valuable to explore this asset. While they may not be as accurate or not apply perfectly in the modern world, we can still use it as a foundation that can be modified to potentially create effective treatments. 

Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. Do you believe ancient texts could hold the key to curing disease? Would you be able to trust a traditional procedure as much as you trust modern health care?


References

Bovey A. 2015 Apr. Medicine in the Middle Ages. The British Library (April). https://www.bl.uk/the-middle-ages/articles/medicine-diagnosis-and-treatment-in-the-middle-ages

Harrison, F., Roberts, A.E.L., Gabrilska, R., Rumbaugh, K.P., Lee, C., Diggle, S.P. 2015. A 1,000 Year old antimicrobial remedy with Antistaphylococcal activity by Freya Harrison, Aled E.L. Roberts. Mbio 6:4

New drugs from ancient texts. (2012). Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 90(8), 557–632. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/90/8/12-020812/en/

Leake, Chauncey Depew. The old Egyptian medical papyri. Lawrence, Kan., University of Kansas Press, 1952.

3 Thoughts on “Ancient Texts for the Treatment of Modern Diseases?

  1. A very nice idea indeed.
    Research or rechurning of the ocean of existence can yield Amrita or Halahal.
    Both are important and both being opposites can compliment each other too.
    The Greek centred world view of the medical past since 300 plus years was disrupted and Breasted put the antiquity of Egypt there on centerstage.Joseph Needham single handedly put China in the limelight and he did a remarkable work indeed.
    This brings me to the actual mother and the real source of knowledge ,Ancient India.
    Ancient Indian medicine travelled with the Buddhist monks to all over the world including China.For more than two thousand years it flourished and the first schools and textbooks of medicine and surgery were Indian.India remains the only civilisation that survives intact.The ancient Egyptians,Chinese,Incas,and hundreds of cultures have perished or been obliterated by viral ideologies.The first printed book in the world is the Diamond Sutra and most of the ideas can and will have the Indian genius as a contributor.Thus the real evolutionary and scientific history must search anew and search wide.Truth is a pathless land but many paths lead to truths and there are many truths.

    1. We’re glad it was a good read! It is definitely interesting to see where modern medicine is going to go especially when there is a constant rise in antibiotic-resistance pathogens. It is exciting to think that one way to move forward might actually be to look backward and gain knowledge from ancient work.

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