Scientists have found that extracts from plants that people used to treat infections during the Civil War have antimicrobial activity against drug-resistant bacteria.
The Civil War began in 1861 as a result of growing tensions over slavery and states' rights between the northern and southern states.
The southern states had seceded in 1860 and formed the Confederate States of America.
The war Civil War ended with the Confederate surrender in 1865.
During part of the war, Confederate surgeons did not have reliable access to medicines because the Union Navy prevented the Confederacy from trading.
As infection rates rose among the wounded, the Confederate Surgeon General commissioned a guide to plant remedies.
Francis Porcher, a botanist and surgeon, compiled a book called Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests. It lists medicinal plants of the southern states, including plant remedies that Native Americans and slaves used.
The Confederate Surgeon General, Samuel Moore, drew from Porcher's work to create a paper titled "Standard supply table of the indigenous remedies for field service and the sick in general hospitals."
Studying plant remedies from the Civil War
Scientists from Emory University in Atlanta, GA, analyzed the properties of extracts from some of plants that people used during the Civil War. Their results appear in the journal Scientific Reports.
Their findings show that these plants have antimicrobial activity against multidrug-resistant bacteria linked to wound infections. Specifically, they were effective against Acinetobacter baumannii, Staphylococcus aureus, and Klebsiella pneumoniae.
Senior study author Cassandra Quave, an assistant professor at Emory University's Center for the Study of Human Health and the School of Medicine's Department of Dermatology, is an ethnobotanist. This is a discipline that studies the uses of plants in different cultures throughout history.
"Our findings suggest that the use of these topical therapies may have saved some limbs, and maybe even lives, during the Civil War," explains Quave.
The researchers focused on three plant species that Porcher cited that grow on the Emory campus: the white oak, the tulip poplar, and a shrub called the devil's walking stick.
They gathered samples from campus specimens and tested extracts on multidrug-resistant bacteria.
Testing plants to aid modern wound care
First study author Micah Dettweiler used the Civil War plant guide for his honors thesis at Emory. He has a degree in biology and works as a research specialist in the Quave laboratory.
During the course of his studies, he was surprised to learn that many Civil War soldiers died from disease on the battlefield, and how common amputation was as a medical treatment. The American Battlefield Trust estimate that about 1 in 13 of those who survived the Civil War had to undergo amputations.
According to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, at the time of the Civil War, germ theory and medical training were in their infancy. Doctors used tonics, iodine, and bromine to treat infections, quinine for malaria, and morphine and chloroform to reduce pain.
"Our research might one day benefit modern wound care if we can identify which compounds are responsible for the antimicrobial activity," says Dettweiler.
Study co-author Daniel Zurawski — chief of pathogenesis and virulence for the Wound Infections Department at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, MD — believes in learning from the wisdom of our ancestors. He also hopes that researchers can test these plant compounds in world-renowned models of bacterial infection.
"Plants have a great wealth of chemical diversity, which is one more reason to protect natural environments," concludes Dettweiler.