By Julie Deardorff, Tribune newspapers
February 23, 2012
Clues for new medicines are hidden in old books.
When the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates had a headache, he used a poultice made of iris mixed with vinegar and rose perfume, according to Alain Touwaide, the scientific director of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., who is featured in the current issue of New Scientist magazine.
For a stomach ailment, Hippocrates may have eaten dates, a hen’s broth and cultivated lettuce, said Touwaide.
But broccoli – which Roman citizens were told to grow in their orchard -- was the most popular all-purpose medicine of the past, said Touwaide, a renowned expert on the way ancient cultures used medicinal plants.
Originally, broccoli was used mainly to treat gynecological disorders, said Touwaide. “From the 3rd century BC it was also used for digestive troubles, tetanus and possibly dropsy,” he said. “In the 1st century AD, skin infections were the most important illnesses treated with broccoli, followed by troubles of the digestive system.
“The Greek physician Galen prescribed broccoli to treat a medical condition that was most probably colon cancer,” he said.
Touwaide, proficient in 12 languages, unearths ancient remedies by searching the original manuscripts in libraries around the world. He also follows the antiquarian book market. Shipwrecks, meanwhile, are “a precious reservoir of material for us,” he said. Through DNA analysis, he has identified the plant components – carrot, parsley, onion and sunflower -- in some medicines.
The most striking discovery, he said, is that the plants mentioned in the writings attributed to Hippocrates are very common: hellebore, garlic, mercurialis, celery, leek, flax, anise, beet and cabbage among others.
“It shows that food and medicine are just two faces of the same coin, and that the best medicine is preventive medicine,” Touwaide said in the interview with New Scientist’s Curtis Abraham.
Read the full interview: "When Hippocrates had a headache...(Subscription required).