Historians recreate old medicines from Polish recipes to see how effective they really were
Historians and pharmacists from Wrocław are recreating medicines from old Polish recipes in a bid to find out more about how effective they were in fighting diseases.
The unique project will reconstruct medicines used between the 16th and 18th centuries, with old Polish diaries, letters and private notes serving as the source of recipes and prescriptions.
Dr Jakub Węglorz from the Institute of History at the University of Wrocław told TFN: “The aim is to restore several dozen recipes and subject around a third of them to laboratory reconstruction and biological analysis.”
“Historians determine their prescriptions, and then together with pharmacists try to translate them into modern language – to determine what the names of ingredients mean and how they were made. The next stage is to make the medicine in the laboratory and analyse its effects.”
One of the medicines reconstructed by the team and a favourite in old Polish apothecaries is Theriac, developed in the 3rd century BC.
Considered an antidote to many kinds of poisons including snake bites, its value against poisons, but also contagious diseases, mainly the plague, was widely considered real in the 18th century, until it fell out of favour with physicians in the 19th century.
In the 2nd century AD, Theriac’s recipe was expanded by Emperor Nero’s personal physician from 34 ingredients to 54, with viper meat one of the new additions, but the recipe used by the Wrocław team was based on the recipe of pharmacist Paul Guldenius, which was used during the spread of the Black Death in Toruń in 1629 and contained even more ingredients, a total of 61.
Węglorz said: “Theriac was prepared in a complex process involving many raw materials that were difficult to access.
“Their cost was very high, making the medicine one of the most expensive of its time…The preparation contained some ingredients that could have certain pharmacological effects, and some are considered poisonous today.
“Nevertheless, their amount in a single serving of the medicine was very small…As a result, our research indicates that Theriac used according to the recommendations of the time could not have been poisonous.
“Did it therefore have therapeutic properties? A full answer to this question still requires analyses of the reconstructed preparation.
“Still, preliminary findings indicate that the possible effectiveness of Theriac was based mainly on the placebo effect.
“Although there is no lack of substances showing therapeutic effects in this medicine with the recommended dosage, their amounts are far from sufficient to have a real impact on human health.”
One of the hardest elements of the team’s work is sourcing the necessary exotic substances for the medicines, which are often no longer widely available.
Węglorz said: “Part of the ingredients are hard to source for legal reasons. For example we have a pretty big problem with opium, which, as a drug, is now under strict controls.
“Other substances are those which are no longer used today, such as ambergris, which is now only found in trace amounts and is very expensive.
“There is also a problem with zoonotic or substances or plant substances which are now subject to protection.”
The research is part of a project entitled ‘Reconstruction and analysis of medicinal preparations identified on the basis of old Polish documents (16th- 18th century)’ carried out by researchers from the University of Wrocław and the Piast Silesian Wrocław Medical University as part of a PLN 1.5 million SONATA BIS grant.