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Prospecting for Drugs in Ancient and Medieval European Texts: A Scientific Approach.
Bart K. Editor. 1996 Harwood Academic Publishers. Cloth, 100 pages. $65.00. ISBN: 3-7186-5928-X. ABC Catalog #B327

"There is an extremely large and readily accessible body of traditional medicine, describing a wide range of plants and other substances, that has not recently been investigated systematically. I refer to premodern western medicine, embodied in the writings of ancient Greece and Rome through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Many of the reported remedies have been dropped, of course, because they were preposterous . . . .But the Greek and Latin herbaria and materia medica do contain, in some cases, descriptions of plants of pharmacological effectiveness whose properties have been forgotten until recently."

This 100-page book is a compilation of seven essays by scholars in their respective fields.

1) Overview: Prospecting for Drugs in Ancient and Medieval Texts (Bart K. Holland)

2) The Medicines of Greco-Roman Antiquity as a Source of Medicines for Today (John M. Riddle)

3) The Medicines of Medieval and Renaissance Europe as a Source of Medicines for Today (Anne Van Arsdall)

4) An Example of a Primary Source: This Booke of Sovereigne Medicines (Elizabeth R. Macgill)

5) What's in a Name: Identifying Plants in Pre-Linnaean Botanical Literature (James L. Reveal)

6) From Plant Lore to Pharmacy: A Prototype of the Process (Thurman Hunt)

7) How Shall We Determine Whether a Treatment Works? (Bart K. Holland)

Thus outlined, allow me to delve more deeply into the essays by Riddle and Van Ansdall in order to provide the reader with the flavor of this interesting and varied work.

John M. Riddle of the North Carolina State University discusses the remedies of Greco-Roman times as a source for medicines today and makes a good case for reviewing those ancient monographs. For example, he cites Cato the Elder (234-149 BCE) who maintained "that cabbage treats ulcers on the breast, supporating wounds, and cancers." Attention of recent has indeed focused on members of the Brassica genus (cabbage family) which in fact do have antimutagenic activity -- however, there is little scientific evidence that cabbage or other Brassica members exhibit antitumor activity when applied topically; if they did, this would give an entirely new meaning to the term "Cabbage Patch!".

Finasteride is sold under the trade name of Proscar(R) by the pharmaceutical giant Merck. Its discovery as a treatment for benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) was the product of the rational application of medicinal chemistry as a theoretical deduction of basic endocrinological research. This is all fine and good, but a couple of thousand years ago Dioscorides wrote about nettle (Urtica dioica) and its ability to "relax" the lower abdomen and bring on urination. As a consequence of his researches Urtica root was employed throughout the Middle Ages as an agent that promoted urinary flow.

Because of Urtica's use in folk medicine German scientists conducted a double-blind study, in 1993, of U. dioica root and Pygeum africanum bark in patients suffering from BPH. Compared with placebo, patients on the herbal blend showed significant improvement in urinary flow, residual urine, and urinary volume within six to eight weeks. Furthermore, laboratory tests, at least initially, assert that this herbal combination works the same way as does finasteride -- namely, that some yet unidentified phytochemical causes the inhibition of 5-a reductase.

Another interesting piece of information is the fact that finasteride promotes the growth of hair. Hippocrates (not Dioscorides) noted this same peculiarity in his patients who received nettle, U. dioica. If only the pharmaceutical scientists had read the ancient texts they would have run across these worthwhile morsels of potentially profitable information!

An entirely different aspect of research is discussed by Anne Van Arsdall in her piece. She states that little comparative work has been done in order to ascertain remedies which have persisted from Greece to Rome to the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and then into the modem historical period. For this she offers the example of treacle:

. . . Venice treacle is a good example of what modems disdain in ancient medicines -- but what was in it and why it was popular for centuries, until as late as the nineteenth century, is not understood. Treacle is a medicinal compound first used in Rome as a remedy against poison, then for centuries as a preventive and cure-all. Numerous recipes for it exist: about 70 drugs were pulverized and reduced with honey to an electuary, a medicated paste prepared with honey or other sweet substance and taken by rubbing on the teeth or gums. Compounding and use of treacle from Rome into the Renaissance and beyond has been documented. Whether any or all recipes for treacle are bogus has not been established except in non-scientific literature, where the recipes are cited as examples of the absurdity of older formulas. However, no one appears to have studied whether there is any scientific basis at all for the very long life that treacle enjoyed.

Riddle and Van Arsdall offer more examples as do the other essayists in this short but interesting volume. I found myself pondering why the observations of the ancients haven't been more thoroughly investigated.

Perhaps the time has come to make a relatively small investment in the systematic re-examination of therapies mentioned in Greek and Latin medical texts, through a dialogue between pharmacologists on the one hand, and classicists, medievalists and historians of medicine on the other. Such cooperation, which would link ancient texts with modern standards of testing, might result in a useful and inexpensive source of potentially therapeutic compounds.

Modern science is willing to trust anthropologists who find a single native, especially if he or she is a rainforest shaman, as nominators of drugs to test for medicinal values. This is well and good, but we are neglecting thousands of years of human experience elsewhere. In some cases, useful empirical experience was gained by highly intelligent, educated observers, such as Galen, who are ignored.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Jay Yasgur