This is such an interesting story- first, how doctors during the Civil War dealt with a lack of medicine; second, that we are still learning from those people and their predecessors (only 160-ish years ago); and third, while sometimes we may focus on the rare (charismatic megafauna, endangered plants), sometimes value also hides in plain sight, with the ubiquitous species that we may take for granted. Here’s a link to an article in Science Daily about this study.
During the height of the Civil War, the Confederate Surgeon General commissioned a guide to traditional plant remedies of the South, as battlefield physicians faced high rates of infections among the wounded and shortages of conventional medicines. A new study of three of the plants from this guide — the white oak, the tulip poplar and the devil’s walking stick — finds that they have antiseptic properties.
Scientific Reports is publishing the results of the study led by scientists at Emory University. The results show that extracts from the plants have antimicrobial activity against one or more of a trio of dangerous species of multi-drug-resistant bacteria associated with wound infections: Acinetobacter baumannii, Staphylococcus aureus and Klebsiella pneumoniae.
“Our findings suggest that the use of these topical therapies may have saved some limbs, and maybe even lives, during the Civil War,” says Cassandra Quave, senior author of the paper and assistant professor at Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health and the School of Medicine’s Department of Dermatolog
Military field hospitals within the Confederacy, however, did not have reliable access to these medicines due to a blockade — the Union Navy closely monitored the major ports of the South to prevent the Confederacy from trading.
Seeking alternatives, the Confederacy commissioned Francis Porcher, a botanist and surgeon from South Carolina, to compile a book of medicinal plants of the Southern states, including plant remedies used by Native Americans and enslaved Africans. “Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests,” published in 1863, was a major compendium of uses for different plants, including a description of 37 species for treating gangrene and other infections. Samuel Moore, the Confederate Surgeon General, drew from Porcher’s work to produce a document called “Standard supply table of the indigenous remedies for field service and the sick in general hospitals.”
For the current study, the researchers focused on three plant species Porcher cited for antiseptic use that grow in Lullwater Preserve on the Emory campus. They included two common hardwood trees — the white oak (Quercus alba) and the tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) — as well as a thorny, woody shrub commonly known as the devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa).
“Plants have a great wealth of chemical diversity, which is one more reason to protect natural environments,” Dettweiler says. He plans to go to graduate school with a focus on researching plants for either medical or agricultural purposes. “I’m interested in plants because, even though they don’t move from place to place, they are extremely powerful and important.”