March 9, 2012

Scouring the ancient libraries of the world for health tips


Alain Touwaide

What would Hippocrates do? No, really. That’s a question Alain Touwaide, Scientific Director of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions at the Smithsonian Institute, has asked himself. According to this interview with New Scientist, Touwaide is “on a mission to unearth lost knowledge from ancient manuscripts.”

Here are some highlights:

What would the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates have used to treat, say, a bad headache?
A cataplasm – or poultice – made of iris mixed with vinegar and rose perfume. And for a chronic headache, squirting cucumber.

How do you find out about these remedies?
I search for them in ancient manuscripts from libraries all over the world – the British Library in London, the Vatican Library or in the many collections housed in the monasteries on the Athos peninsula in Greece. It’s what I call my fieldwork. But many manuscripts are also in smaller libraries scattered all through Europe. I also follow the antiquarian book market.

I specialize in the ancient medico-pharmaceutical literature based on Mediterranean flora, and I study the texts in their original language – Greek, Latin, Arabic.

In the hunt for new plant-based medicines, broccoli is a popular target. Has it been used as a medicine in the past?
We have discovered a wealth of data on broccoli in the ancient literature. Originally it was mainly used to treat gynaecological disorders. Then from the 3rd century BC it was also used for digestive troubles, tetanus and possibly dropsy. In the 1st century AD, skin infections were the most important illnesses treated with broccoli, followed by troubles of the digestive system.

The ancient Roman Cato felt all Roman citizens should grow broccoli in their orchard to use as a sort of all-purpose medicine, and the Greek physician Galen prescribed broccoli to treat a medical condition that was most probably colon cancer.

Are there other plants mentioned in classical texts that have potential as new medicines?
Walnut, and the herbs black horehound and white horehound. These plants are credited with a disinfectant and anti-inflammatory action in the ancient literature. They appear to be active against the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, even drug-resistant strains. And red raspberry (Rubus idaeus) is recommended for treating inflammation in ancient literature. In modern-day tests it appears to be active against superficial skin inflammation.

Dr. Touwaide has also learned that ancient shipwrecks can be a boon for his studies. Though most of the medicines used where common  and cultivated close to home, they were also traded throughout the ancient world. Medicines have been recovered from ship wrecks dating from 140 to 120 BC and sent to the Smithsonian for further research.

And the ancients knew what they were doing, according to Touwaide:

What is striking from the writings attributed to Hippocrates is that the plants mentioned are very common: hellebore, garlic, mercurialis, celery, leek, flax, anise, beet and cabbage among others. This list is significant because it shows that food and medicines are just two faces of the same coin, and that the best medicine is preventive medicine. Myrrh was also used as an antiseptic, antibiotic agent. If you have a disinfectant and a good range of basic substances with which to treat a broad range of illnesses, you have quite a good therapeutic arsenal at your disposal.

Touwaide is currently compiling a database of the medicinal plants of antiquity for the Smithsonian.

And, need I add, finish your broccoli.


Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.