Medicinal Plants Used During the U.S. Civil War Are Surprisingly Good at Fighting Bacteria

May 23, 2019

With conventional medicines in short supply during the Civil War, the Confederacy turned to plant-based alternatives in desperation. New research suggests some of these remedies were actually quite good at fighting off infections—a finding that could lead to effective new drugs.

Three plant-based topical remedies listed in a Confederate Civil War field guide have antiseptic qualities, according to new research published this week in Scientific Reports. The antibacterial compounds were derived from white oak, tulip poplar, and devil’s walking stick.

The active ingredients of the remedies are still not known, but the finding suggests these plant-based medicines may have actually saved some lives during the war, and perhaps even preventing the amputation of infected limbs.

“As we look toward a future where many of our current antibiotics may no longer work… I think it’s important to have alternative strategies in development to fill that gap.”

The new research also highlights the value of investigating old-timey therapies, which could be reconstituted into modern medicines.

“As we look toward a future where many of our current antibiotics may no longer work with the efficacy to which we have become accustomed, I think it’s important to have alternative strategies in development to fill that gap,” Cassandra Quave, senior author of the new paper and an ethnobotanist at Emory University, told Gizmodo in an email. “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 said it’s important to look back on historical data relating to the use of medicinal plants, particularly as we search for solutions to emerging medical challenges.

“Luckily, today we have advanced scientific methodologies and instrumentation that enables a deeper look at these historic remedies,” said Quave.

During the Civil War (1861-1865), Union forces suffocated the South with a blockade, dramatically limiting the amount of goods available to the Confederacy—including its access to conventional medicines. With soaring infection rates among wounded soldiers, Confederate Surgeon General 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 folk remedies used by white Southerners, as well as those used by enslaved Africans and indigenous peoples.

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