Nile Mud, Dirt, and Ancient Medicine

In December, I blogged about how modern scientists are rediscovering the use of copper to kill germs. This week I’m interested in reports of a new antibiotic, one that doesn’t seem to induce resistance.

We know that the overuse of antibiotics in modern medicine and factory farming has allowed bad bugs to evolve into badder, nastier, and often untreatable pathogens. For decades researchers raced to keep ahead of them by cultivating newer and stronger antimicrobials, but until now the bugs have been winning.

The latest weapon in the medical armamentarium comes from dirt.

Ebers medical papyrusThe Ebers Medical Papyrus

What is it about mud and dirt? The Russian novelist Gogol reports that peasants used warm dirt on wounds. It’s not surprising, then, that most modern antibiotics have been cultivated in the lab from soil bacteria. The ancient Egyptians used Nile mud on certain lesions. Nile mud, as it happens, contains aureomycin.

The latest weapon has been dubbed teixobactin. It kills bad bugs very efficiently—though it’s only been tested in mice, so far—by a mechanism that germs seem unable to resist.

In The Throne in the Heart of the Sea, our medical student Tamar becomes acquainted with both Nile mud and copper as treatments. Her instructor Peninah assigns her to compile a pharmacopoeia:

Peninah unrolled an elegantly written scroll. “Look at this.”

“I don’t know all these words,” Tamar said.

 “No reason you should. It’s Egyptian medical terminology. All the best schools are in Egypt and no matter how good a physician you are, you’re nobody unless you’ve studied there.”

Send me! Oh please send me!

 “But we have an opportunity to change that in our lifetime, because King Ittobaal wants to promote the healing arts at home. He said no Tyrian should have to travel abroad for a decent dentist. I told him if he gives me a budget, I can make this clinic rival anything along the Nile. So. I’ve written the Women’s Medical College at Saїs, and the Divine Mothers agreed to lend us one of their instructors, possibly next year. Meanwhile they shipped me a few surgical texts, like this one.”

Tamar forced a smile. “Very kind of them.” Mama always said want only what you can get. Only rich people get to go to Egypt. And sailors, men with strong arms to pull oars.

“Yes. Most of the pharmaceutical ones call for substances we can’t get, like Nile mud—I keep picturing a gang of stevedores shoveling it onto a boat that slowly sinks under the weight. Others can be shipped, like nosem-tree seeds, but most people can’t afford them. We need a local pharmacopoeia, so the goddess ‘Anat has inspired me to write one—with your help, if that’s agreeable to you.”

“Me? Tamar squeaked. “Why choose me?” This was real, not a fantasy, and an honor beyond her previous imagining. “The other girls have been here lots longer.” Oh, please don’t let them be jealous. No Evil Eye!


One Response to Nile Mud, Dirt, and Ancient Medicine

  1. Mary Ann January 18, 2015 at 5:45 pm #

    I like the way you are able to incorporate the culture and the science of these ancient times into a readable and entertaining work of fiction.

Leave a Reply

Privacy Policy

We do not retain any credit card information
and will not sell, lend, or otherwise transfer your
contact information to anyone, ever.