Monastic medicine: medieval herbalism meets modern science
By Susan Watt and Eleanor Hayes
Science in School, Issue 27 (2013)
Introduction: Most people think of herbal medicine as a distinctly ‘alternative’ option – something that you might try for a cough or cold that won’t budge, but not for life-threatening illnesses. Medical historian Dr Johannes Mayer, however, takes it all much more seriously: he believes that the herbal remedies described in medieval texts can provide excellent starting points for highly effective modern treatments, even for diseases such as cancer. And he is not alone, as his work has already attracted the attention (and funding!) of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.
The focus for Dr Mayer’s research group at the University of Würzburg, Germany, is monastic medicine (Klostermedizin in German). For the past 30 years, group members have been sifting through monastic manuscripts dating from the 8th century onwards, translating and publishing details of plant remedies and the ailments that they are intended to treat.
Their work moved from the historical towards the more scientific some 14 years ago, when the group received a visit from a manager at GlaxoSmithKline. When the visitor asked “What is monastic medicine? Is it praying or something?”, Dr Mayer explained that in fact it meant elucidating the herbal treatments documented by monasteries and investigating their physiological effects.
That visit led to a research group being established at the university, with sponsorship from GlaxoSmithKline, to look for effective modern remedies derived from medieval monastic knowledge. So far the collaboration has led to the development of some products to treat the common cold, sold under the appropriately named brand Abtei (German for ‘abbey’). The group now has other links with pharmaceutical companies, as well as with Würzburg University Hospital.