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A Medieval Recipe Could Kill Hospital Superbugs. No, Really.

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Staph infections are one of the most pervasive and annoying bacterial infections faced by hospitals every year. It infects half a million people in the US every year, with symptoms ranging from skin infections to heart problems — and worse, some strains (commonly known as MRSA) have evolved to resist common antibiotics.

As it turns out, medieval communities also faced staph — in particular, with staph causing eye sores called styes. Our ancestors had an old-timey cure, too, written in Old English in Bald's Leechbook:

Take cropleek and garlic, of both equal quantities, pound them well together, take wine and bullocks’ gall, of both equal quantities, mix with the leek, put this then into a brazen vessel, 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 it with a feather to the eye; the best leechdom.


Christina Lee, the Viking studies professor who came across the recipe, decided to take it to a microbiologist at her university to test. They painstakingly followed the recipe — not easy, when since modern crop varieties differ significantly to the older ones.

They tested the homebrew potion on scraps of skin taken from mice infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the most difficult-to-kill version of staph. Surprisingly, the recipe killed 90 per cent of the bacteria — the same success rate as Vancomycin, the drug hospitals use to treat MRSA. An American researcher contributing to the project found a similar rate when he repeated the effect.


Now, researchers need to work out which particular compound worked the magic. The team also tested the individual ingredients on their own, and found no effect on the MRSA strain; it seems that there's something about steeping in a brazen vessel that bacteria just doesn't like. (Of course, it's worth mentioning that test-tube results don't always play out so well in the real world.)

The findings are due to be presented at a conference this week in Birmingham, UK. Until then, just make sure you stock up on garlic, bile salt, and wine. Particularly the wine. [New Scientist]