Medicine: A future found in the past


Medicine has been constantly developing since its original conception, especially in recent years when there has been a great need for a new kind of modern medicine. But not everything needs a completely new invention, but instead, perhaps, old ideas should be reimagined. Some herbs and remedies have been used since medieval times and even some before that, and while most would think we have come up with completely new methods that would make old medicine obsolete, there are still some 21st-century remedies that use these historic means.

Although commonly a food source for monarch butterflies, milkweed was also used as a remedy used by the native American’s and taught to the European colonisers. Although it can be dangerous, the native Americans often used it to help with intestinal inflammation and warts. Although the plants are slightly toxic, if cooked and used correctly it can be used for a variety of good causes. In 1977, a doctor by the name of Bruce Alyward decided to isolate the active ingredient in milkweed. This active ingredient was called Igenol mebutate (C25H34O6 ) also known as Picato. Recent studies of this chemical have shown that a gel made from it may be effective in stopping skin lesions from mutating into cancerous cells. This only one of the many historic plants that are still used today. 

Writing from the Greek physician Hippocrates suggests that willow tree has been used as an effective pain relief method since ancient Greece.  The part of the tree that is effective as pain relief is the bark of the tree, which has been used for many years, not only as pain relief but also to treat certain types of fevers. In 1828, Willow bark was refined by a man named Johann Buchner, the byproduct called Salicin, after the genus of the willow tree itself. Ten years later, the process was once again refined to produce Salicylic acid. French chemist Charles Gerhardt created a compound similar to the first form of aspirin however it was unstable which encouraged Gerhardt to stop his research into the chemical. 

After a German dye company branched out and started working in pharmaceuticals, three of the scientists in that department began working on experiments with many different kinds of chemical compounds, namely Salicylate. They wanted to develop a form that didn’t cause gastric issues and irritation and began work on it.  Soon, they had developed acetylsalicylic acid, better known as Aspirin. That was in 1897, however, there is still debate surrounding how the credit should be rationed among the three.  Within three years of its initial release, it became widespread and was even used during the first world war. However, it was once again proven to cause gastric issues and other products such as Ibuprofen and Paracetamol became more popular to use. 

Throughout history, Snowdrops have been used for pain relief and neurological problems, since around Ancient Greece. In the Odyssey, snowdrops were referred to as ‘moly’ and given to Odysseus as a antidote for a potion from Circe. Many have speculated that the potion given to the hero by the goddess included some of a Belladonna Alkaloid-containing Solanaceae plant which can be cured by a compound found within snowdrop plants. Although these Alkaloids are poisonous, causing illnesses such as diarrhoea, the chemical, galantamine (C17H21NO3), may prove useful in finding methods of prevention for degenerative brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s. 

Although these plants have been used, referenced and transported for years, they have and are each contributed to modern medicine, some even being currently trialled in helping patients with conditions that scientists have been trying to improve for years. In this case, its an old solution to fix a new problem. 


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  • July 16, 2020 at 10:27 pm
    John W

    I do not know how, but you made me want to change my entire career path and to pursue the history of medicine.
    Thank you for the interesting knowledge, i honestly never knew that willow trees made aspirin!
    Can’t wait to here more from you.

    • July 20, 2020 at 9:47 am

      Thank you so much! I don’t plan to stop any time soon. Although I write on a range of subjects, I have a fascination with history and the way things have evolved through time. This particular topic seemed important to draw attention to.


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