Penicilin is conventionally thought of as one of the great achievements of the twentieth century. I was taught at school that the antibacterial properties of mould were discovered in by Alexander Fleming in 1928. While this is partly true – Fleming was responsible for a great stride in our understanding – such treatments had been being used a long time before that. It was one of many medicines deployed by the Ancient Egyptians:
Egyptian physicians made use of a wide variety of medicinal plants, but the most numerous remedies were purgatives and emetics. The cathartic oil of the castor plant was used both as an internal drug and as a medication for wounds and irritated areas. Products from the opium poppy may have come into use in Egypt relatively late, but some scholars believe the plant was a therapeutic drug in the second millennium B.C. Substances such as hyoscyamus and scopolamine (an ingredient of “twilight sleep” in recent obstetrical practice), which are both related to mandragora from the mandrake plant, probably also were employed, but the time of their introduction is not established. Some of the vegetable decoctions may. well have had antiseptic action. The “rotten bread” prescribed in several formulas might have been effective on wounds because of the presence of antibacterial molds (just as penicillium mold is used today).
This was just part of a remarkably advanced system of medicine: Homer wrote that “In Egypt, the men are more skilled in medicine than any of human kind.” While the Egyptians were not immune to the pull of magic and faith healing, doctors and physicians were a distinct class from magic men or priests. They were able to perform surgery and dentistry, and provide reasonable advice on nutrition.