Prozac, opium and myrrh: the ancient arts of anaesthesia are unlocked

A medieval hospital that straddled the main highway between England and Scotland has yielded the secrets of its extensive pharmacopoeia showing that centuries-old treatments offered to the casualties of war between the two countries have never been bettered by modern medicine.

More than 200 herbs and spices were used in combinations to provide early painkillers and anaesthetics, antiseptics and anti-depressants for the retreating English armies - in some cases hundreds of years before their first previously recorded use.

Though the discovery has surprised historians, it will be greeted with quiet satisfaction by addicts of Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael books - whodunnits about a medieval monk who potters in his herb garden, concocting remedies.

Detailed examination of the "medical waste" - mainly blood and human remains - retrieved from the drains of Soutra Hospital near Edinburgh, show that the Augustinian brethren who ran it for 500 years, from the 12th to the 17th centuries, were sophisticated physicians able to offer everything from major surgery to sleeping draughts for insomniacs.

Battle-scarred soldiers facing amputation were anaesthetised with a cocktail of black henbane, opium and hemlock - several hundred years before the age of anaesthetics is understood to have begun with the discovery of ether and chloroform in the 1830s. Pregnant women were given ergot and juniper berries to induce labour long before natural childbirth was thought of, and patients afflicted with melancholia were offered St John's wort - still in use and known as "nature's Prozac".

Records held in archives at Edinburgh's National Museum show that the hospital, one of the largest in Europe in the Middle Ages, was taken over on at least 80 occasions by English armies. Dr Brian Moffat, the archaeologist who has led the investigation, said that some English kings returned again and again. "It was usually the ones with blood on their hands - Edward I, II and III. One can only assume the facilities were up to their standards. They didn't like to rough it, you know."

Dr Moffat, who describes himself as a professional muckraker, has been analysing the contents of the hospital's drains for more than a decade looking for clues to the remedies and treatments used. Grisly evidence of amputations comes from the "surgical offcuts" that litter the site and mixtures of seeds indicate the drug cocktails that were given. "Discarded seeds are the mirror image of a recipe. If you can get hold of the seeds you can get inside the mind of the medieval physician," said Dr Moffat.

Opium was mixed with lard to provide an analgesic salve for wounds. The addition of myrrh, a highly efficient bactericide, and honey gave it antiseptic as well as painkilling properties. The use of myrrh, which came only from south-west Arabia, suggested the hospital was rich and well-connected.

Infestations of lice and scabies, frequent among the malnourished, were treated with arsenic preparations which were still in use in the Royal Edinburgh hospital in the 1960s. Worm infestations were treated with tormentil, a herb similar to the more common silverweed. Tincture of tormentil is still available from chemists as a treatment for worms and as an astringent for diarrhoea.

"What this means is that in 800 years, that treatment has not been improved on. The reason you may not have heard of it is that drug companies cannot make a profit out of something that grows on every Scottish hilltop," Dr Moffat said.

The findings have stirred debate in medical circles over whether the medical history books will have to be rewritten. Professor Adam Smith of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh told BBC Radio 4's Today that Dr Moffat had provided a new picture of medieval anaesthetics. "We had always thought the simplest anaesthetic was to give an overdose of alcohol and render the patient senseless," the professor said.

Dr Moffat said: "Our research provides proof positive of the use of anaesthetics 500 years before [medical circles] recognise it."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Graduate Software Developer / Junior Developer

£20 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Software Develop...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Trainee Teacher - Maths

£18000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This organization is the larges...

Recruitment Genius: Delegate Telesales Executive - OTE £21,000 uncapped

£16000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: High quality, dedicated Delegat...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Consultant - School Playground Designer

£25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor