View Full Version : Rumphius' Medicinal Herbs

Monday, January 1st, 2007, 11:53 PM
By Maura Lerner, Star Tribune (http://anonym.to/?http://www.startribune.com/484/story/906013.html)

A few years ago, Eric Buenz came across a 17th-century book on herbal medicine.And he wondered if its ancient folk wisdom could withstand a little scientific scrutiny. So Buenz, then a graduate student at the Mayo Clinic, and a colleague decided to test a tree extract that the book claimed could cure diarrhea.

What they found was that the potion, made from the nuts of the atun tree, works a lot like an antibiotic, killing various types of bacteria. And in a report in the British Medical Journal this month, they explain how a 300-year-old text by a Dutch naturalist named Rumphius could help scientists in their search for new and better drugs.

"It was lost traditional knowledge," Buenz said. Buenz, 29, traveled to Samoa to collect the nuts and consult with shamans. "And we tested it and it worked." Mayo and the scientists have obtained a patent on the medicinal properties of the atun tree nut, in hopes someone might develop it into a drug.
"Our findings," they wrote in the journal, "show that potential drugs can be identified by searching historical herbal texts."

In a way it's not surprising, because many prescription drugs come from natural substances, said Dr. Brent Bauer, one of the co-authors and director of the Mayo Clinic's complementary and integrative medicine program. "There's a reason why they chose the plants they did, why they prepared them the way they did," he said of traditional healers. "The fact that we can somewhat validate ancient knowledge is cool because a lot of this ancient knowledge is disappearing."

Burning manuscripts

In this case, the "ancient knowledge" probably would have disappeared if not for the dogged persistence of Georg Everhard Rumphius, a mercenary with the Dutch East India Company, whose story is recounted in the Dec. 23 British Medical Journal article.

In 1657, he started collecting plants on the Indonesian island of Ambon and recording their medicinal uses in a text that he illustrated himself. Thirty years later, his manuscripts burned in a fire. "At that point I'd be reaching for the Prozac or something," Bauer said. "He goes back and just starts writing it all over again."

Rumphius, who was then blind, dictated the second manuscript and commissioned new illustrations. But this, too, was destroyed when the ship transporting the book to Holland was sunk by the French navy.

Rather than "surrender to despair," the authors note, he reworked his surviving notes and completed seven volumes of the book, called Ambonese Herbal.
Fast forward to the 21st century: The surviving copies were essentially gathering dust in rare-book collections until a Dutch-language professor decided to translate part of the text into English.

And Buenz stumbled onto the translation at a botanical library in Hawaii. Buenz, a scientist who had studied folk medicine while on a fellowship in Samoa, was fascinated. He and Bauer searched the Rumphius text for references to herbal medicines, and compared them to a database of known medicinal plants.

The atun nut/diarrhea treatment was a new one, so they decided to test it.

Buenz, who now owns his own research company called BioSciential in Rochester, returned to Samoa, where healers use the nut to make a sweet-smelling massage oil for sore muscles -- "an historic Bengay," he said, laughing. He returned to the United States with the nut, ground it up and mixed it with alcohol. In the lab, it killed two types of bacteria, Staphylococcus and Enterococcus (but didn't touch the E. coli).

For now, they don't know if it will work beyond the test tube. "That's the million-dollar question," Bauer said. If anything ever comes of it, he added, they would share the profits with the native healers who helped them. But the larger message, he said, is that there may be more to learn from the ancients.
"It should keep us somewhat humble," he said.

Gorm the Old
Tuesday, January 2nd, 2007, 01:27 AM
The acknowledgement that the ancients may actually have known what they were doing is, to say the least, refreshing. :rolleyes: The alchemists dismissed those who obtained their knowledge of medicine from experimentation and observation as "wretched empirics".

However, the pretentious mumbo-jumbo of the alchemists contributed nothing to the advancement of medicine or the origin of chemistry. It was the "wretched empirics" who made all of the useful discoveries. And we have yet to realize the importance of many of these discoveries.:idea:

A certain professional arrogance has persisted altogether too long in the natural sciences, and especially in medicine, tending to regard the early naturalists and herbalists as misguided bunglers who, if they discovered anything, did so by accident.

It is high time that their writings were taken seriously and studied, bearing in mind that they lacked the technical terminology which their successors spout so impressively to daunt the uninitiated.

Of course, some of them WERE misguided. The great British herbalist Culpeper derived the curative properties of herbs from the astrological sign governing the time when they sprouted, blossomed, or what-have-you, a late manifestation of the muddling of empiricism by the pretentious nonsense of the alchemists :doh