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The History Of Antibiotics

In some form or the other, people have been using antibiotic medications over the centuries. In fact, in the ancient times, it is possible that people hardly realized why or the manner in which the organic and inorganic substances taken by them worked precisely. What actually was more important for them is the fact that these substances produced the desired results. Prior to the availability of commercial antibiotics, people clearly used their common sense while dealing with infections. In effect, they did little to combat the infections directly, but let their body to neutralize it in the natural process. Following the process, helped the prehistoric man to develop their immune system as well as the body's resistance to infections. They only adopted intervening actions when they found that the body was not winning the fight against infections.

On the whole, people relied on herbal medications and traditional remedies. It may be noted that Ireland had a very strong practice of herbal medicine and there was always a physician or herbalist prepared to assist in treating infections. Like in several other cultures across the globe, the information regarding growing as well as using herbal medicines was passed on from one generation to another. To a large extent, the physicians relied on natural substances, for instance iron, mercury and antimony (a fragile, shimmering metallic element found in nature that is known to be somewhat toxic, but used to prepare medicines).

However, it was only in the 19th century that scientists started to examine an assortment of remedial substances intimately with a view to comprehend precisely why and how they were effectual. During the course of their research, the scientists found the existence of beneficial bacteria. They started experimenting by isolating the ‘good' or beneficial bacteria and supporting their development in the laboratory. Subsequently, the bacterial agents were put to test to find their aptitude in treating diseases. Such model of research as well as clinical trials was maintained till the 20th century and it also continues even to this day resulting in the production of the first antibiotic medicaments.

From prehistoric times to the 19th century

Documentation by Neanderthals, who lived more than 50,000 years back, are said to be the earliest evidence regarding human's use of plants and other natural substances for remedial purposes. Later, archaeologists excavated evidence of human remains in northern Iraq that were buried along with a variety of herbs, a number of which have now found to be antibacterial that were used by the prehistoric people of the region to eliminate bacteria or thwart their multiplication. Interestingly enough, many of those herbs are used by the people of the region even to this day. Similarly, several antibacterial substances, inorganic as well as organic, have been used over centuries by people in different other regions of the world.

It is believed that the Egyptians were the first to make prescriptions for curing infections sometime around 1550 BC. The prescription written like ‘mrht', ‘byt' and ‘ftt' is said to be a blend of lard, honey and lint and was used in the form of a lotion for dressing wounds.

We are aware that honey possesses antibacterial properties, as it kills bacterial cells by means of extracting water from them. Moreover, honey encloses an enzyme called inhibine that transforms glucose and oxygen into hydrogen peroxide - a widely accepted antiseptic. In current times, wounds have been found to be very resistant to healing by antibiotic medicaments. However, honey has the aptitude to heal them quite easily. In addition, honey is also known to be a wonderful natural medication for curing infected varicose ulcers.

In the Roman times, tincta in melle linamenta was a common prescription. In fact, tincta is the same lotion that was used by the Egyptians along with honey as the vigorous constituent. In addition, the Greeks too used honey for dressing wounds, frequently mixing it with copper oxide. In latest times, during the World War II, an ointment prepared with honey and lard was used by people in Shanghai to heal wounds and skin contagions very effectively.

In fact, among the antibacterial substances used by the Egyptians, honey was not the only substance. Aromatic resins, for instance frankincense as well as myrrh, were employed to preserve human remains. In effect, onions too have antibacterial properties and it has been generally found inside the body cavities of mummies. Researches substantiated the anti-infective properties of onion and garlic some time around 1940s. Scientists isolated a substance known as allicin from these plants, which has proved to be very effective in eliminating bacteria.

Radish is another herb which the Egyptians are believed to have used for medicinal purpose. The attribute of the plant to combat infections was established following the isolation of raphanin, a substance that possesses considerable antibacterial actions against a wide range of infections.

Alexander Fleming's work in the 1920s demonstrated that molds (development of minute fungi forming on vegetable or animal substances), for instance, Penicillium spp., have the ability to produce antibacterial chemicals. However, the use of molds actually has its origin to the ancient Egyptians or most possibly even earlier. It may be mentioned here that some time around 1550 BC, an Egyptian physician had remarked in the Ebers Papyrus that when a wound decomposes, it should be bind on infected barley bread. It is true that the Egyptians employed various types of molds to cure infections on the skin surface. Similarly, in ancient time, the Chinese too made use of molds to heal carbuncles, boils and other skin infections.

During the time of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, people also extensively used vinegar and wine to heal wounds that were infected. Vinegar is actually an acid and a potent antiseptic that eliminates germs causing diseases. However, the antibacterial features of wine may not be totally attributed to its alcohol content, since it is very poor. Chemical analysis of wine undertaken recently has exposed that it encloses an antibacterial substance known as malvoside. Scientists are of the view that malvoside present in wine is responsible for its antibacterial attributes.

Over the ages, people have also used inorganic substances to cure infections. For instance, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans extensively used copper combining it with honey to treat infections. Contemporary scientific tests have established that copper definitely possesses antibacterial properties. Even today, copper is mixed with other inorganic substances to cure infections. In France, a skin condition called impetigo caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus is being cured using Eau Dalibour, a blend of copper and zinc. Although the surgeon general of Louis XIV army Jacques Dalibour is known to prescribe this medication for the first time ever, it is believed that this combination may also have been used in traditional French medicine much long back.

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