Bug Medicine Archive pick
March 4, 2002
War Stories
In the "olden days," people relied on natural substances — such as mud, insects, and herbs — to help people heal. Many of these folk remedies are now resurfacing. How do remedies like these work?

Imagine going to a doctor for a leg wound that won't heal. Instead of prescribing antibiotics, the doctor suggests a treatment of maggots, which are fly larvae. Sounds gross, right? You might wonder why anyone would even consider such a treatment.

Well, disgusting as it sounds, scientific research has shown that in some cases, maggots may heal a wound more quickly and efficiently than modern medicine.

People living in ancient times would say that science has finally caught up with what they already knew. Centuries ago, soldiers whose wounds became infected with maggots did better than non-infected soldiers. It turns out that the maggots (the wingless, wormlike form in which insects hatch from eggs) were eating dead tissue and killing bacteria, making the wounds healthy and allowing them to heal more quickly.

J.F. Zacharias, a Confederate medical officer in the Civil War, used the larvae of the green blow fly to prevent gangrene in wounded soldiers. Gangrene occurs when a body part dies due to interference with its nutrition. "Maggots in a single day would clean a wound much better than any other agents we had at our command," reported Zacharias. "I am sure I saved many lives by their use."

What Zacharias was doing is today called "biotherapy," the medical use of live organisms such as leeches or maggots.

Proof Positive
Medical maggot treatments — now called maggot debridement therapy or MDT — continued in this country until the 1940s, when antibiotics and surgical techniques replaced them. After that, the use of maggots was considered a "last ditch" attempt to save people's limbs when modern medicine failed. The effectiveness of MDT led some doctors to wonder why the treatment wasn't used before people were in danger of having their extremities amputated. Clinical studies begun in 1989 showed that maggots cleaned infected wounds better than any other nonsurgical treatment. Researchers found that wounds treated with the larvae healed more quickly than they had been healing before the treatment.

The maggots used for medical purposes do not burrow under patients' skin. They also do not multiply because a mature larva must leave a wound to pupate (enter its cocoon) or it will die. A doctor using this procedure simply flushes the maggots out of a wound after several days. One of the only known disadvantages to this type of treatment is the tickling sensation reported by some patients!

  • One-day-old larvae range from 1- to 2mm in length. By the fourth day, they will have grown to about 1cm. What percentage growth do larvae experience in one day?
  • Listen to an NPR segment that discusses folk remedies such as maggot treatments that are making a comeback. (Requires Real Player. Download now.)
  • What other "folk remedies" have you heard about from your parents or grandparents?

A Peach of a Leech
History is full of home remedies used throughout the centuries. People have been known to slather honey on burns, use black tea as a sort of natural antibiotic, and eat clay. This might sound strange to you, until you realize that white clay is also an ingredient of Kaopectate, a popular antidiarrhea medication in the United States. Chances are that you've eaten clay, too!

Another folk remedy handed down through the ages is the use of leeches. The first use of medicinal leeches occurred about 2,500 years ago in Egypt; later, they were applied to treat all kinds of ailments from headaches to stomach aches. It was thought that leeches would drain "impure blood" from the body, thereby curing illness.

Scientific research has since shown that leeches are unlikely to stop a stomach ache, but they are certainly useful in surgery. Leeches are often used today in plastic and reconstructive surgery, because an anticoagulant they secrete fights blood clots and restores proper blood flow to inflamed parts of the body. The wormlike critters also help remove stagnant, deoxygenated blood from various parts of the body.

Q&A
with Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, authors of Honey, Mud, Maggots and Other Medical Marvels

Q: In ancient times, how did people know which remedies would work?
A: They learned in two ways. One was by paying attention to the eating habits of wild and domesticated animals, especially when the animals were sick. If the animals recovered from illness, people would try the same plants and earths. People also discovered new therapies by experimentation. Primitive peoples all over the world obtain pure water by digging holes in clay near riverbanks. The clays filter pollutants out of the water. Someone must have reasoned that such clays would also filter out poisons added to food or wine, because special clays were ingested by kings and popes to thwart would-be poisoners.

Q: What are some common folk remedies that actually work?
A: Aspirin is made of the same salicylic acid in willow bark, a remedy prescribed by Egyptian doctors over 3,500 years ago. Hand creams for softening skin often contain urea, which people in the past applied to their skin in the form of urine. One-a-day style vitamin pills contain vitamins A and D, both found in cod liver oil that children were forced to take by the daily spoonful in the 1800s. Many antacids contain calcium carbonate (limestone), most commonly found as chalk and ingested since time immemorial for acid stomach. Milk of magnesia is a mineral that in ancient times was actually dug out of a hill in Magnesia (now Manisa), a city in western Turkey, and eaten to soften stools.

Get Honey, Mud, Maggots and Other Medical Marvels, by Robert Root-Bernstein and Michele Root-Bernstein.

More Links
Check out these interesting leech facts from Biopharm.

Look at some leech pictures. These are not recommended if you're queasy!

Look at leeches in action.

Visit Biopharm's Web site to learn more about leech farming.

Last December, scientists working at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had built a mechanical leech. If successful, the device would offer a good alternative to real leeches. "People don't want this disgusting organism hanging on their body," says UW-Madison researcher Dr. Nadine Connor. "This added psychological stress for both patient and family members compounds an already difficult situation." Apart from increasing patients' comfort levels, Dr. Connor and her colleagues say that their device may even be more efficient than real leeches at promoting bloodflow through human tissue.

Does this mean that real leeches will be out of a job? Not necessarily, because scientists are looking into other uses for leeches, too. Dr. Roy Sawyer is the owner of the world's only leech farm, Biopharm, and he has found that leeches produce many useful chemical compounds. These include a powerful anesthetic, antibiotics, enzymes that could help with the distribution of local anesthetics before surgery, and anticoagulants that could help prevent heart attacks and strokes.

Speaking in a recent article in Discover magazine, Sawyer said, "Secretions from bloodsucking animals could be to cardiovascular diseases what penicillin was to infectious disease in the past. Leeches are preadapted to human physiology. The secretions from their saliva cross the entire spectrum of physiology: blood clotting, digestion, connective tissue, disease, pain, inhibition of enzymes, anti-inflammation. You name it, the leech has it."

Sometimes, nature provides the best remedies. Leeches would agree.

Related Activities
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For high school students: Learn more about how the human circulatory system keeps tissues and organs healthy in this Biology Gateways activity.
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Important Insects
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Honey: A Sticky Healer
Read about the healing properties of honey and apitherapy (bee venom therapy) in this Riverdeep archive article.