There are many misconceptions about the state of medical care during the Civil War. While doctors were often inexperienced and were not aware of the importance of sterility, many advances were made during this time. There were thousands of amputations, but surgeons used anesthesia in many cases, for example. A guide to traditional remedies used in the South was created at the height of the war to help cope with the onslaught of infections and lack of typical medicines.
Researchers have now investigated the properties of three plants found in that guide; the white oak, tulip poplar and devil's walking stick were found to act as antiseptics. Importantly, extracts from these plants were active against some of today's worst drug-resistant bacterial pathogens that infect wounds - Acinetobacter baumannii, Klebsiella pneumoniae, and Staphylococcus aureus. The findings have been published in Scientific Reports.
"Our findings suggest that the use of these topical therapies may have saved some limbs, and maybe even lives, during the Civil War," said the senior author of the study, Cassandra Quave, an assistant professor and ethnobotanist at the Center for the Study of Human Health and the School of Medicine's Department of Dermatology at Emory University.
"Ethnobotany is essentially the science of survival - how people get by when limited to what's available in their immediate environment," Quave explained. "The Civil War guide to plant remedies is a great example of that."
"Our research might one day benefit modern wound care if we can identify which compounds are responsible for the antimicrobial activity," noted study first author Micah Dettweiler.
The researchers want to find these active ingredients. “It is my hope that we can then [further] test these molecules in our world-renowned models of bacterial infection," said study co-author Daniel Zurawski, chief of pathogenesis and virulence for the Wound Infections Department at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
Antiseptics were in their infancy during the Civil War (1861 - 1865). Some of the drugs that were used included quinine for malaria and morphine for pain. Because of a Union Navy blockade, however, many Confederate military field hospitals could not reliably access those medicines. In response, botanist and surgeon Francis Porcher was commissioned by the Confederacy to generate a guide to the medicinal remedies used in the South, which included those developed by slaves and Native Americans. It was published in 1863 and "Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests," included usage information for 37 plant species.
In this new research, the scientists focused on plants that were found in Emory’s Lullwater Preserve. Samples were gathered (as described in the video) and extracts were removed from various parts of tulip poplar, white oak, and devil's walking stick plants. The wound-infecting microbes were exposed to the extracts, and the researchers found that white oak and tulip poplar inhibited S. aureus growth and white oak extracts also disrupted the growth of A. baumannii and K. pneumoniae. Devil's walking stick extracts interfered with the formation of biofilm formation and quorum sensing in S. aureus.
"Plants have a great wealth of chemical diversity, which is one more reason to protect natural environments," Dettweiler said. "I'm interested in plants because, even though they don't move from place to place, they are extremely powerful and important."