Thursday, May 23, 2019

Plant-based medicines used by a resource-challenged Confederacy are effective against modern drug-resistant bacteria

White oak was among remedies tested in study (Photo by Stephen Nowland, Emory University)

The resourcefulness of the Confederacy – hampered by a blockade that limited access to medicines – led to plant-based wound treatments that appeared to be effective, researchers said this week.

A team from Emory University in Atlanta found that white oak, tulip poplar and the devil’s walking stick had an antiseptic effect on three species of drug-resistant bacteria. They’re hopeful such remedies could help in modern treatment of injuries, once experts identify the active ingredients in the plants.

"Our findings suggest that the use of these topical therapies may have saved some limbs, and maybe even lives, during the Civil War," Cassandra Quave, senior author of the paper, said in a university article.

The study was published this week in Scientific Reports.

Germ theory was in its developmental stages at the time of the war and physicians utilized iodine, bromine, quinine and other medicines. But Confederate forces rarely had enough of any of these, and they turned to the botanical world for some treatments. Amputation was common as a medical treatment for an infected wound.

David Price, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md., called the study “fantastic.” He said physicians at the time used the knowledge that they had from every source in order to treat the symptoms with which they were presented.

Francis Porcher wrote a guide used by Confederacy (Photo by Stephen Nowland, Emory University)

“When looking at medicine during the time of the Civil War you cannot use present-day standards,” Price told the Picket. “The reason we have such incredible medicine today is because of the work Civil War doctors did. It's the beginning of the modern health care system.  It was the largest health care crisis in American history; two-thirds died of disease. Camp life was deadlier than the battlefield.”

Confederate Surgeon General Samuel Moore asked botanist Francis Porcher to compile a book of medicinal plants in the South. Some were remedies used by Native Americans and enslaved Africans. “Resources of Southern Fields and Forests” was published in 1863, during the height of the war.

The book featured 37 plant species that were used as antiseptics to treat gangrene and other infections.

From there, the Confederacy devised what is called a standard supply table for using indigenous remedies for field service. A chart listed the remedy, its medical properties and recommended doses.

In his introduction to the guide, Moore advised: “It is hoped that Medical Officers will lay aside all prejudice which may exist in their minds against their use, and will give them a fair opportunity for the exhibition of those remedial virtues which they certainly possess.”

The Emory researchers used bark and leaf extracts from the plants they collected on three species of bacteria often found in wound infections today. The extracts inhibited growth or certain pathogens.

 Researcher Micah Dettweiler with devil’s walking stick (Photo by Stephen Nowland, Emory University)

The researchers said plant extracts provide another weapon against antibiotic-resistant bacteria – in this study Acinetobacter baumannii, Staphylococcus aureus and Klebsiella pneumonie.

“The significance of the study is that it offers another proof-of-concept case that some of our solutions for the post-antibiotic era may be found in the medical traditions of the pre-antibiotic era,” Quave told Gizmodo.

Price pointed out that doctors for both the Federal and Confederate armies used plant-based medicines.

“There are so many lessons to be learned by studying Civil War medicine,” he said. “Water quality, nutrition and how to care for mass populations so they don't get sick. These are lessons that are at the forefront of the world today -- be it poor populations or refugee camps.”

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