Society for Conservation Biology
16th Annual Meeting,
Canterbury, UK, July 2002
Botanists probe medieval medicine
13th-century folklore inspires 21st-century research scheme.
22 July 2002
The 600-year old Red Book of Hergest may contribute to modern medicine.
Researchers in Wales are following the lead of medieval medics in the hope of finding new drugs. A project will begin later this year at the country's National Botanic Garden to explore the work of a medical dynasty, the Physicians of Myddfai.
"[The Myddfai's work] may make a significant contribution to modern medicine," says Terry Turner, a pharmacist at the University of Wales in Cardiff who is involved in the project. "These old boys knew what they were doing - they were experimental and knowledgeable people."
Myddfai is a village in South Wales. Here, in the early thirteenth century, a physician named Rhiwallon founded a line of doctors that spread across Wales and persisted for hundreds of years - some Welshmen still claim descent from the physicians.
Legend has it that Rhiwallon's mother was a lake fairy who told him which plants had medicinal uses and where they could be gathered.
The Myddfai's most important text, the Red Book of Hergest, dates from around 1400. It describes nearly 500 remedies for ailments such as deafness, lumps and fever, derived from more than 200 plants.
"The level of detail is extraordinary," says Rhodri Griffiths of the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Llanarthne. This detail could be vital; the chemicals in a plant depend on when it is picked and how it is processed.
When the botanic garden's newly built science centre opens - probably this October - the laboratories hope to probe the Myddfai knowledge using modern techniques such as chemical screening, tissue culture and genetics.
Drug companies worldwide are scouring nature for leads. Many are basing their searches on local knowledge, from past or present.
The Myddfais' writings are a jumping-off point, not a map, Turner told this week's Society of Conservation Biology meeting in Canterbury, UK. "One mustn't take them as a stricture. We have an awful lot of information that they didn't have."
For example, he says, modern extraction techniques get at chemicals that the Myddfai couldn't with just alcohol. There might be therapeutic compounds in the stuff they threw away.
Some well-studied plants might bear further inspection. The Myddfai treated tumours with a poultice made from foxglove - long used to treat heart disease. "There's a strong case for saying 'let's look more closely and see what's there'," says Turner.
The garden's £5-million science centre also intends to team up with farmers in the Myddfai region to develop a commercial medicinal herb-growing operation.
Nature News Service / Macmillan Magazines Ltd 2002
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