Dr Christina Lee, an associate professor of Viking Studies at the University of Nottingham, translated a 1,000-year-old recipe for treating eye infections from an ancient Anglo-Saxon text, held in the British Library.
As part of a cross-disciplinary AncientBiotics team, Dr Lee worked to translate the recipe in collaborative effort with microbiologists at the university.
The Old English text outlines details for the preparation and use of a balm to treat eye infections, which modern medicine has shown can be caused by bacteria. For example, the common bacteria Staphylococcus aureus can cause conjunctivitis and styes.
The Medieval text calls for the apothecary – who would prepare and sell medicines – to mix onion, garlic, wine and cow’s bile, among other ingredients, in a copper pot and let it stand for nine days. The team at Nottingham tried to stick faithfully to the text, and any ambiguous ingredients replicated as best they could.
Dr Freya Harrison, of the university’s School of Life Sciences, then tested the mix on bacteria, including strains of S.aureus resistant to the antibiotic methicillin (MRSA).
The bacteria were grown in biofilms, which can make the microbes incredibly resistant to drugs, and the medieval balm was applied like a topical medicine.
The mixture broke up the film of bacteria, killing many of the cells. Collaborators in the US showed that up to 90% of MRSA were killed with the mixture in wound biopsies from infected mice.
“We found that [the mixture] is incredibly potent as an anti-staphylococcal antibiotic in this context,” said Dr Harrison.
Dr Lee said: “We were genuinely astonished at the results of our experiments in the lab...But the potential of these texts to contribute to addressing the challenges cannot be understood without the combined expertise of both the arts and science.
“Medieval [texts] contain many remedies designed to treat what are clearly bacterial infections...these remedies were developed well before the modern understanding of germ theory.”