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Medicinal plants used during the American Civil War are surprisingly good at fighting bacteria



The leaves and galls of white oaks were used to produce herbal antiseptics during the American Civil War.
Image: Stephen Nowland, Emory University

With the shortage of conventional medicines during the civil war, the Confederation desperately turned to herbal alternatives. New research suggests that some of these remedies were actually effective enough to fight infections – a finding that could lead to new, effective drugs.

According to a new study published this week in Scientific Reports, three herbal topical remedies listed in a war-related Confederate Civil War field guide have antiseptic qualities. The antibacterial compounds are derived from white oak, tulip poplar and devil's cane.

The active ingredients of the remedies are still not known, but the discovery suggests that these herbal medicines might actually have saved lives during the war or even prevented the amputation of infected limbs.

"As we turn to a future where many of our current antibiotics may no longer work … I think it's important to develop other strategies under development to fill this gap" .

The new research also highlights the interest of investigating old therapies, which could be reconstituted into modern drugs.

"As we turn to a future where many of our current antibiotics may no longer work with the effectiveness to which we've become accustomed, I think it's important to develop other strategies." being developed to fill this gap, "said Cassandra Quave, senior author of A new newspaper and an ethnobotanist from Emory University told Gizmodo in an email. "The importance of this study is that it offers another proof of concept that some of our solutions for the post-antibiotic era can be found in the medical traditions of the pre-antibiotic era."

Quave said it was important to revisit historical data on the use of medicinal plants, particularly when we were looking for solutions to new medical problems.

"Fortunately, today we have advanced scientific methods and instruments to deepen these historical remedies," Quave said.

During the Civil War (1861-1865), Union forces stifled the South by blockade, severely limiting the amount of goods available to Confederation, including its access to conventional medicines. With high infection rates among wounded soldiers, Confederate general surgeon Samuel Moore commissioned Francis Porcher, a botanist and surgeon from South Carolina, to compile a book of medicinal plants found in the southern states. Porcher was asked to include the traditional remedies used by the white southerners, as well as those used by enslaved Africans and indigenous peoples.

A copy of 1863 of Francis Porcher's "Resources of Southern Fields and Forests".
Image: Stephen Nowland, Emory University

The book entitled "Resources of Southern Fields and Forests" was published in 1863. The Compendium was surprisingly complete and included, for example, nearly 40 species of plants used to treat gangrene and other infections. With this book, Moore outlined an abbreviated version titled "Reference Chart of Indigenous Remedies for Field Workers and Patients in General Hospitals", describing precisely how the field guide was used by the South in during the last stages. of the civil war.

This guide was probably helpful. As the war raged and conventional drugs became scarce, diseases began to wreak havoc among soldiers. The majority of casualties and deaths in the civil war, such as the American Battle Trust points out, were the result of non-combat-related illnesses. The theory of germs was still in its infancy, but doctors understood the importance of using antiseptics to fight infections, although it was not immediately clear why.

To evaluate the antimicrobial potential of these civil war remedies, Quave and his colleagues selected three specific laboratory-based herbal medicines, namely those derived from white oak and tulip poplar (both trees) and Devil's cane (a thorny, woody shrub). All three were used during the war as a topical or external rinse for wounds. Using Porter's book as a guide, researchers selected specific extracts of bark, leaves, galls and other parts of plants. These compounds were then tested against three species of drug-resistant bacteria associated with wounds, namely Acinetobacter baumannii, Staphylococcus aureus, and Klebsiella pneumoniae.

"We found that they were acting against a number of bacteria commonly involved in [wartime] injuries, including drug-resistant strains, "said Quave. "While some had classic antibiotic activity, such as slowing down growth or killing bacteria, others were acting by blocking the bacteria's ability to stick to surfaces (important for wounds) or by blocking bacterial responsible communication." the production of toxins that destroy the tissues. "

When asked if doctors would ever want to treat an infection with only one of these remedies, Quave replied that it would depend on the context.

"I do not believe that these medications would be effective as an oral medication to treat a systemic infection, but they could potentially be useful for the treatment of wounds, perhaps in the form of a wound rinsing, pain and inflammation. 39, a hydrogel or a medicated bandage, "she said.

"This new scientific research confirms that traditional medicine used during the American Civil War effectively fought bacteria and prevented infections," said Joan E. Cashin, a historian at the State University of New York. Ohio. Articles of War: The fight for human and environmental resources in the American Civil War, wrote in an email to Gizmodo. "These staggering results prove once again that truth – and history – are stranger than fiction," said Cashin, who did not participate in the new study.

For the future, Quave wants to determine which compounds are responsible for the specific antibacterial activities observed in the study and test the formulations of the most promising extracts in wounds infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In the end, Quave would like to see these discoveries translated into real drugs.

"Perhaps the best implementation will be a topical antimicrobial medical device, such as a hydrogel, a rinsing product or a medical dressing," she said.


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