Civil War Plant Medicines to the Rescue?

We’ve all heard about drug-resistant bacteria. These are a scary group of germs because they are not killed off by traditional antibiotics. The world of medicine is very busy trying to find a way to help people who are infected with these bacteria. Well, sometimes answers are found in the most unlikely places. In this case, some clues were dug up in an old field guide titled “Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests.”

This field guide was first published in 1863, and it has been found that doctors treating Civil War soldiers used this guide to help them fight infections. Specifically, these were soldiers in the Confederate Army. Due to a Union Army blockade, medicines for the rampant infections suffered by the southern soldiers were in short supply. Because of this blockade and shortage of medicines, the Confederate Surgeon General commissioned a guide to plant remedies of the south. A new, modern study of three of the plants from this guide – the white oak, the tulip poplar, and the devil’s walking stick – finds that they do indeed have antiseptic properties.

Researchers used extracts from these three plants to try to fight the three most common drug-resistant bacteria found in wound infections. The first of these three bacteria is commonly known as “Iraqibacter” because it is associated with wounded combat troops returning from the Iraqi War. This bacteria has proven to be resistant to almost every kind of antibiotic. It’s now becoming a major threat for soldiers recovering from battle wounds and for hospitals in general. Testing has shown that extracts from the bark of the white oak tree seriously inhibits the growth of the “Iraqibacter” threat. Slowing the growth can help doctors get a handle on the bacteria before it becomes deadly.

The second of these nasty infections to be tested is called Staphylococcus aureus. Staph infections are fairly common, and S. aureus is considered to be the most dangerous of these infections. It can begin as a skin infection or even survive on medical devices and spread through the bloodstream to infect the body’s organs. All three of our Civil War plants are able to fight against this dangerous staph infection. They slow its growth and prevent it from forming something called a biofilm, which is kind of like a shield the bacteria grows to protect it from antibiotics. The leaves of the devil’s walking stick add another layer of protection by blocking the bacteria’s ability to form toxins.

The final of the three bacteria to be tested is called K. pneumoniae. As the name indicates, this bacteria is a leading cause of hospital infection and can result in life-threatening cases of pneumonia and septic shock. Again, extracts from the bark of the white oak were shown to greatly slow the growth of this infection, lessening the likelihood that it will cause death in the victims.

All of these tests are in the early stages. However, they are already showing promise in helping the medical community get a handle on the dangerous drug-resistant bacteria that is causing the death of so many people worldwide. Most notable is that this testing is a welcome change from the most common types of research because it is an attempt to use the knowledge of the past to solve modern problems. It was a college student who came up with the idea to look through old field guides and medical journals to find a possible answer to a new and frightening problem. Sometimes you have to think out of the box!