Dr Tu Youyou’s discovery, the anti-malarial artemisinin, derived from wormwood, is credited with saving millions of lives.
From opium in poppies, to quinine derived from the cinchona tree, to digoxin from foxgloves, there are many gems unearthed from the past that have true testable medical benefits.
In fact, there is now a whole branch of science dedicated to the study of traditional medicine, ethnopharmacology.
But it is not as simple as isolating the
active ingredient from a plant.
Apart from the fact lots of these plants in their raw form are poisonous, making useful drugs for a population requires planning and sufficient raw material.
“We have to develop drug strategies, and considerations of treating large numbers of people have to be taken into account,” Michael Heinrich, professor of pharmacognosy (medicinal plant research) at UCL, says.
The white sap from this common weed, also known as petty spurge, was described by Nicolas Culpeper’s Complete Herbalist (1826) as “a good treatment for warts”.
Don’t try this at home, however, as its also an irritant.
Milkweed made its way from its native Europe to Australia, where biochemist Dr Jim Aylward had it in his garden.
“My mum grew it for 20 years and swore by it,” he says.
“She always told me to put it on my skin to help sunspots.”
In 1997, Dr Aylward isolated its active ingredient, ingenol mebutate, which he discovered was toxic to rapidly replicating human tissue.
Galantamine, derived from snowdrops and now used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, was first investigated by the Soviet Union, – but folk law tells of Bulgarians rubbing the flowers on their forehead to cure headaches.
Prof Heinrich says: “They were almost certainly used in traditional medicine before the Soviet’s started investigating in the 50s.
“Why would you go into your garden and investigate your snowdrops?
“There must have been a reason for them to look at snowdrops in the first place”
‘Cow’s Stomach Juice’
A recipe for “eye salve” from 1,000-year-old Anglo-Saxon medical textbook Bald’s Leechbook states onion, garlic, wine and cow’s bile should be crushed together and left in a bronze vessel for nine days and nights.
Now, tests have shown the eye salve kills MRSA in the lab faster than the best antibiotic.
“Anglo-Saxon remedies don’t have the best reputation, but the idea that Anglo-Saxon medicine is superstition has clouded our judgment,” says Dr Christina Lee, associate professor in Viking studies at Nottingham University, who translated the recipe.
“We need to get rid of the whiff of homeopathy and give old remedies the credit they deserve.”