Monday, January 29, 2007

What's it good for?

Sometimes, people seem skeptical when I suggest to them that modern researchers might be interested in our old paper, these off-line collections of medical lore. Well, finally a concrete example of new uses for old dogs! An article recently published in the British Medical Journal (2006;333;1314-1315) describes how a group of researchers "mined" a 400-year old Dutch text for information on therapeutic plant extracts.

Called "Searching historical herbal texts for potential new drugs," it could not illustrate more plainly my point that, someday, everything old can be new again. In the section "Implications," the researchers state: "Our findings show that potential drugs can be identified by searching historical herbal texts;" and the conflict of interest statement at the end announces that the Mayo Clinic has already applied for the patent on the antibacterial properties of the plant in question. Peer-reviewed publication, patent money: now there's motivation enough for many a quester.

If someone wanted to get started on such an historical dig here in the OHSU collections, there are several prime candidates for scrutiny. Immediately coming to mind is our collection of three olas, manuscripts written in Pali-Sinhalese on the leaves of the talipot palm. One is called the YAKSHA RAJA THILAY—literally, 'King Devil Oil,' but really indicating only that this was a very powerful medicinal oil. Another, dated to circa 1570, is on THE PREPARATION OF PILLS AND OTHER DRUGS, and most probably belonged to a Ceylonese physician of the time period. Lastly, we have an early 19th century ola called YOGASATAKAYA—a collection of notes on malaria, typhoid, pneumonia, etc., and prescriptions for their treatment.

If Pali-Sinhalese is not your second language, you might consider approaching one of our continental manuscripts, such as the anonymous German Artznei buch dem menschen zu villen krankheiten, dated 1668 at the end. Or, Johann Conrad Keller's Manuscript on pharmacology, begun January 12, 1733.

Is English really your strong suit? We have something for you: an anonymous manuscript on medical prescriptions, written circa 1871-1887. See? Now you, too, can look for the miracle drug of the future--and all we'll ask for is a nod in the acknowledgments section of your groundbreaking paper!

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