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Staph Retreat

Monday, November 02, 2015 - 08:44 PM

Bald's Leechbook (Photo Credit: British Museum)

What happens when you combine an axe-wielding microbiologist and a disease-obsessed historian? A strange brew that's hard to resist, even for a modern day microbe.

In the war on devilish microbes, our weapons are starting to fail us.  The antibiotics we once wielded like miraculous flaming swords seem more like lukewarm butter knives.

But today we follow an odd couple to a storied land of elves and dragons. There, they uncover a 1000-year-old secret that makes us reconsider our most basic assumptions about human progress and wonder: What if the only way forward is backward?

Reported by Latif Nasser. Produced by Matt Kielty and Soren Wheeler.

Special thanks to Steve Diggle, Professor Roberta Frank, Alexandra Reider and Justin Park (our Old English readers), Gene Murrow from Gotham Early Music Scene, Marcia Young for her performance on the medieval harp and Collin Monro of Tadcaster and the rest of the Barony of Iron Bog.


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Comments [52]

Joey Nelson from San Francisco

I think you guys need to read all the comments in response to this episode and maybe go back and sift through the facts. I love Radio Lab, but have you done due diligence toward the facts throughout this episode.

Jun. 06 2016 11:29 PM
Dominic from Adelaide

A lot about 'slobby' Fleming, but no mention of Howard Florey and his team whose "systematic, detailed work transformed penicillin from an interesting observation into a life saver."

Apr. 19 2016 07:21 AM
Emily Henochowicz from Brooklyn

Ox gall is also a medium to improve the flow of watercolors - you can find it at any art supplies store.

Mar. 18 2016 10:26 AM
Blake from Oakland

I do think one of the bigger take aways from this episode was the fact that we may need to reread our history books in order to find cures for somewhat incurable ailments. It is rather exciting to think that finding a cure for something may look more like an Indiana Jones movie and less like a live feed coverage of doctors poking at stuff under microscopes.

I am curious, has anyone found any historical texts that hint at a cure for cancer? I feel "the best medicine" would have to have a similar elixir for cancers.

Mar. 15 2016 04:14 PM

Love this show! Just wanted to bring up how copper and copper alloy works as an antiseptic, even killing various drug resistant organisms including spores and viruses. This was used by Egyptians as an oral solution. Recent research has proved that a hand rail replaced with copper or copper alloy will kill MRSA in less than 2 hours; research studies have even proved that copper alloy will continue to kill bacteria even after oxidization! I continue to look forward to listening to your show in my car and in my home :)

Jan. 04 2016 12:37 AM
Josh Levine

Wonderful storytelling! Reminds me of my own conconctions that basically combine Jewish penicillin (basically marrow chicken soup) with Chinese-Vietnamese black chicken soup. Swear by it.

Dec. 26 2015 07:28 PM
Sarah from Lowell

Herbalists are shocked at your results 😒

Dec. 12 2015 08:07 AM
Laura from Cleveland

The comments below are correct, every single ingredient (garlic, onions, copper, alcohol, bile salts) is a known antimicrobial agent. So this is interesting medical history but it is not revolutionary science. Like all antiseptics, these ingredients have very general mechanisms that affect all cells, meaning both that strong resistance is hard to evolve but also that they harm human cells. As someone pointed out below, the harm to human tissues is undoubtedly why the cure went out of fashion.

I'm sure your microbiologist could have told you all this had you asked.

Dec. 09 2015 08:47 PM
Kristie from Minnesota

What an interesting episode!

The episode never said - did the onion end up working or the leek? Or did both work?

Nov. 26 2015 08:35 AM
Expat B from Viet Nam

No historian of medicine would tell the moronic story of a window being opened and 'voila! penicillin!' A) his window was across from a deep counter & sink; B) he was too short to reach it; C) the far more likely, and still incredibly serendipitous, events that led to the dish being 'contaminated' are well-documented by contemporary sources. You should have spent 5 minutes ignoring whatever is written at Wikipedia and actually speaking to a person knowledgeable in the subject.

Based on the comments about this episode, I'm glad I turned it off when I did as it sounds as if it (somehow) only got worse.

Nov. 25 2015 10:32 PM

Yes, how very cool! And as Thom Heil mentioned above, this is not new in Chinese medicine, as some of the formulas are quite ancient. The only difference is that the Chinese formulas are still being used today and have never lost stride. I question the validity of the summary that the guy came up with where he surmised that the formula is only good because enough time has passed and a new strain of bacteria has formed. Seems like a shot in the dark based on one narrow perspective/paradigm. :~)

The power of Chinese herbal medicine is in the fact that there is no one size fits all formula. There are BASE formulas which are adjusted depending on who is in front of you: what their general constitution is, what their symptoms are, what type of environment they are in, etc. THEN the formula changes (most likely) the next time they see you based on the same questions: constitution, symptoms etc. So there really is not the opportunity for one formula to become ineffective. The formula may change many times, in fact, before the patient is healed. I would LOVE IT if these women tried out some Chinese formulas and tested them the way they did the one in this story! They might be as surprised as they were in this episode. And it'll be easier to get the herbs and understand the instructions as they have been clearly documented and carried on for centuries.

Good job Radio Lab! I love you guys!

Nov. 24 2015 09:11 PM
KGR from Portland, OR

What I appreciate about this episode is that it reminds us that...
1) Science is sometimes a non-linear process
2) Friendships and *play* can be the trigger for scientific discovery
3) What looks from a distance like a superstitious ritual may well have had a practical purpose: The concept of saying Ave Marias as a standardized measure of time as well (as a measure of faith) is brilliant.

Whether or not this treatment turns out to be helpful in the long term, I think those lessons make this story quite valuable in terms of how we think about science getting done. Bravo.

Nov. 22 2015 05:29 PM
Alex from NYC

Is there a transcript of this episode for people who can't hear well?

Nov. 20 2015 05:41 PM

This recently in:

Nov. 20 2015 10:43 AM
Noah from Petaluma, CA

Yes, we tested garlic juice in Microbiology class too and it has antiseptic properties. Most all plants have antimicrobial/antifungal defenses so this is not a big surprise to me. I wanted to hear how this recipe compared to other medicines and also a MIC or something quantitative (other than 99.999%). They also didn't mention how badly this stuff burns when you put it in your eye. Sort of a sloppy episode IMO... very interesting stuff but there is so much more on the subject that could be explored. How about a 3 part episode on super bugs or antibiotics?

Nov. 19 2015 02:16 PM
Peter Po Hsiang Chu from Canada

My apologies, forgot to post the link for Ms. Tu's Lasker award in 2011 in my previous post.

Nov. 12 2015 05:49 PM
Peter Po Hsiang Chu from Canada

Great show but This has been done before. Look no further than the 2015 Nobel prize winner in medicine Ms. Tu Youyou. Here is the brief description when she won the Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. The first book she used was written over 2100 year ago in China.

Nov. 12 2015 04:59 PM
sarah from las vegas, nv

so everyone is getting over excited because the article seems to say that this will cure mersa...well... maybe it can help maybe it can't.. at least this is an ingest-able remedy and remember it was originally written as a remedy for fixing an eye lump (sty), not gaping, non-healing, systemic hospital wounds. But, frankly, possibly leaving out the brass bowl, I'd certainly try it if I had such an infection that wasn't healing. it's not that I don't occasionally eat Italian food anyway which often conatin these ingredients to people's delight...and well oxgall, ok, I don't eat that but keeping nose to tail theory of eating in mind, I might in a different atmosphere.

silver is an antibacterial metal too but I doubt too many people have silver mixing bowls...

my pool has copper rods that are activated with minor electric current and a slight amount of acid. it keeps algae to a minimum with very low loads of chemicals (maybe the acid from the wine and the brass bowl has some combined effect that is similar to pool water and silver or copper rods)

There is also, lets not forget, the essential oil mixture of thieves blend...and the thought the perfumers of the time survived the plague a little more heartily then other yes, lots of old timey recipes and things thought of as alternative medicine like rain forest teas and poultices, are often quite relevant for treating disease and infection an in fact, sometimes, the seed for mass produced synthetic pharmaceuticals that are widely used and accepted by western doctors.

Nov. 10 2015 11:51 PM
Miguel Matos from Orlando

I was listening to this while making silver and garlic infused agar dishes for a class project. Frea mentioned bile being a common resource for microbiology and noticed she conveniently didn't mention why. A MacConkey agar plate for gram negative organisms that contains bile salts that prevent the growth of most gram positive organisms (like Staph. species).

It's still awesome that early Vikings stumbled on this without that knowledge and why we don't just give a bile ointment for Staph boils/infections. I'm going to see if topical application of a bile suppliment capsule has the same effect.

Nov. 10 2015 11:43 AM
Erin from Hershey PA

Microbiology, health crises, Medical history, time travel, Old English language, Re-enactment of ancient games, focus on ancient remedies, serendipitous meeting of like-minded people - This episode has it all! Thank you!!! I am now inspired to go check out Bald's Leechbook and contemplate my potential future in Medical Acupuncture (no kidding)!!!

And as always, thank you for the wonderful music and sounds!!!!

Nov. 09 2015 05:05 PM

Mr. Diggle pointed to a paper, so I looked at it. In their paper, they kill mice to treat infected tissue in culture. One presumes that they did so because the concoction did not work on living mice, a far easier, more meaningful and more humane experiment to do. These authors may one day look back on the killing (sacrifice, euthanasia) of animals for any reason as shameful acts of human arrogance, as others have, including myself.

I agree with the other skeptics here - this is simply an antiseptic at best. The ingredients (bile, alcohol or vinegar, garlic, copper) have well-described antibacterial properties by themselves. Are they surprised that they have antibacterial properties as a nine day old mixture?

Of course, it all might be a ruse along the lines of one research group, who described the use of Baileys Irish Cream as a necessary ingredient in a procedure they published, opening the door for them to use grant money to buy cases of the stuff. Since they are using wine in their salve, as well as veggies, they can order groceries and party away. I wish I could see this as just entertainment, but I suspect some people will use it to justify using diet to treat infectious disease.

I really enjoy Radiolab. A faithful listener, me.

Nov. 08 2015 04:13 AM
Celeste Sarvis

it is probably the garlic -which is known as an anti-bacterial

Nov. 08 2015 03:23 AM
Thad Humphries from Charlottesville, VA

In addition to all the recipe's uncertainty already highlighted, I would add the onions and garlic. We are well aware how tomatoes, melons, strawberries, etc. have been modified to make them more suitable for shipping and year-round consumption. Doubtless onions, leeks, and garlic have changed, either through direct breeding or by how farming techniques have changed.

Nov. 07 2015 07:33 PM
Mark Eisenman from Toronto, Canada

The most important thing about this show is that it shows how unrelated interests that seem to have absolutely no relationship to each other, and would likely have no redeeming value, can come together to create new, possibly life saving knowledge. This is why pure curiosity and basic research is so important, and must be supported. The serendipitous nature of this show's primary characters' HOBBIES (Freya Harrison, Christina Lee) led to this interesting knowledge, and this show.

Nov. 07 2015 12:32 PM
NoseyNick from Ontario

You DUMPED YOURS DOWN THE DRAIN?!?!? Isn't that about the WORST possible thing to do with antibiotics, especially the antibiotic that may save mankind from MRSA?

Nov. 07 2015 11:06 AM

I sometimes think if I put speech disorder on my *resume, that I would get special consideration when applying for a job on Radiolab.

Nov. 06 2015 07:23 PM

I sometimes think if I put that I had a speech disorder on my radio, that I would get special consideration when applying for a job on Radiolab.

Nov. 06 2015 07:22 PM
guustaaf damave from WA

Great podcast. I was going to share it on Facebook but when I try to do that an image comes up with a button on it. Very confusing.

Nov. 06 2015 03:56 PM
Lucynda from California

I loved listening to this podcast as I had a very scary experience with staph 6 years ago after I had a tattoo done covering the entire side of my body which was then covered with plastic wrap on one of the hottest days of summer (105 degrees). My tattoo artist had said that if I kept the plastic wrap on overnight the colors will be more intense, which they are... problem is I woke up filling like I was hit by a bus. Everything in my body hurt and by the end of the 1st day I was developing a wound on my leg which prevented me from walking without pain (which means it got into my blood stream).

I started researching and soon found that all my symptoms matched up with staph. I then started looking up natural remedies to staph and all of them said Garlic. I started eating cloves of garlic and made a paste to put on the wound on my leg. I did this everyday for a few days and it was getting better.

I still decided to go see a doctor to make sure that i was in-fact getting better because well, who wants to die?

The doctor confirmed that I did have staph but whatever I did seemed to have worked and that there is nothing that he needed to do for me.

So all that to say... Thank you nature for being awesome and providing everything we need to be healthy and thank you Radiolab for putting such awesome content out there!

Nov. 06 2015 01:52 PM
Steve Diggle

As mentioned earlier, it's not as simple as it being just a sterilising solution. It affects different bacterial species very differently. Some it doesn't affect at all. If you mix several species together then it selectively kills some and not others. Mechanistically there is something interesting going on and we are working on this as follow up work. We appreciate this got a lot of media attention, this wasn't our doing, it just captured the public imagination.

Nov. 05 2015 06:02 PM
Steve Diggle

To the person who asked did we drop out individual ingredients? Yes we did and copper is the only dispensable component. See the recent mBio paper for details. Another aspect of the work is from the humanities side. Were these physicians just quacks working blindly or were they doing experimental work and passing on knowledge? This is interesting as it might mean we underestimate our ancestors. For example, one treatment they used for what was obviously anemia was to put a red hot iron poker into a glass of wine and get the patient to drink it. How could they know how to do this if they were not experimenting?

Nov. 05 2015 05:55 PM
Steve Diggle

Oh and the one ingredient you CAN drop from the recipe and it still be effective is copper! Yes copper is effective at preventing bacteria from colonising surfaces but it is not crucial for this recipe. The Anglo Saxon physician may have used copper vessels as they realised things didn't grow on/in them as readily or they may simply have been status symbols showing that you were a respected physician.

Nov. 05 2015 05:45 PM
Jason from New York

It seems to me Radiolab should have at least mentioned that alcohol (the wine) when applied directly to bacteria could act as a sterilizing agent. If more than that is at work, fine, but to completely ignore alcohol as a sterilizer seems an oversight.

Nov. 05 2015 01:13 PM
Kelly from Houston, Texas

Gracious me, is it ever interesting to read through the comment sections of a podcast that I thoroughly enjoyed. Perhaps it is good to remind those of a microbiological background (or medical, science, etc. background) that this lovely little podcast is not a white paper, but rather a source of entertainment that might be used as inspiration to those of a scientific mindset to begin to explore microbiology in a more in-depth manner. How many of us were grabbed by some sort of entertainment that sparked our interest, imagination, attention and served as a springboard into our respective fields? I know that I was.

Truly loved this podcast for what it was intended to be - rather wonderful entertainment. If I want statistical data and theorem outlining precise theorem and research on the topic of microbiology, I'll brew myself a cup of very strong coffee, plant myself in front of my computer and click to the portals of a digital library.

Nov. 05 2015 12:17 PM
Greg from USA

A poorly conceived episode. More like tabloid trash than the usual Radiolab insight. The first section on the discovery of Penicillin gets just about everything wrong. Resistance was not created by antibiotics. It was always there. Antibiotics select for resistance.

The superbug story is grossly exaggerated. The percent of fatal infections is decreasing every year, not increasing. The absolute number may increase, but that is a function of population increase.

The medieval formula for topical antisepsis is a trivial finding, hyped to extraordinary levels. As others have noted, there are a dozen chemicals in your kitchen which kill 100% of bacteria, starting with bleach and honey.

Nov. 05 2015 10:10 AM
Greg from USA

A poorly conceived episode. More like tabloid trash than the usual Radiolab insight. The first section on the discovery of Penicillin gets just about everything wrong. Resistance was not created by antibiotics. It was always there. Antibiotics select for resistance.

The superbug story is grossly exaggerated. The percent of fatal infections is decreasing every year, not increasing. The absolute number may increase, but that is a function of population increase.

The medieval formula for topical antisepsis is a trivial finding, hyped to extraordinary levels. As others have noted, there are a dozen chemicals in your kitchen which kill 100% of bacteria, starting with bleach and honey.

Nov. 05 2015 10:06 AM
AJB from Maryland

Steve Diggle,et al - You guys made me yell at my phone during the podcast! I knew I remembered something about the antimicrobial properties of copper, and am very surprised you didn't mention this as a possibility. I don't know that a posted link will work on this message board, but if not, just do a search for _copper ions microbicide_ in the search engine of your choice.

Nov. 05 2015 08:52 AM
Mak Kubeisy from Dubai

Dear Radiolab - I really enjoyed this episode. I wonder if they they tried making this solution but eliminating one of the ingredients each time to see if one particular component was the effective agent in killing the bacteria. This would be interesting to try if they have not done so already.

Nov. 05 2015 01:40 AM
Steve Diggle

We are working on the mechanism but as I mentioned, it does not appear to be just working as an antiseptic.

Nov. 05 2015 01:15 AM
Steve Diggle

For anyone who is interested, we published the first paper on this work here:

We now know it works on several bacterial species and it dosnt act like a bleach that simply kills everything. It's actually quite selective and is getting more interesting the more we work on it.

Nov. 05 2015 01:12 AM
Ø from NYC

Don't dismiss African thinking/medicine also! Jad kept mentioning time travel, I highly recommend he read the publications put out by the activist group AfroFuturist Affair, especially their collection of Black Quantum Futurism. It's important not to colonialize one's thinking about health.

Nov. 04 2015 05:17 PM
Bill Hamilton from Germany

I agree with what Michelle H posted above. In this episode resistance to antibiotics appears to be equal to inmortality of the bugs. Doesn't Lysol kill 99.9% of viruses and bacteria? I wonder why we are not using it on our infections. Coming up with a toxic combination of ingredients is not that hard.
This episode is sorely missing a skeptical point of view. At some point someone speculates that people stopped using it because maybe bacteria grew resistant to it. What if people stopped using it because its toxicity did more harm than good? The desire to put "ancient knowledge" on a pedestal got priority over doing one's homework.

Nov. 04 2015 05:08 PM
Michael from Tristate Area

Hi can someone please provide information on the viking group that practices in NJ mentioned on the show. A name of the group or any contact information at all would great and thanks radiolab for continuing to make great shows!!

Nov. 04 2015 04:03 PM
British Library

Delighted that our 9th-century medical manuscript, Bald's Leechbook, has been featured here. The full manuscript can be viewed online at We also have many more interesting manuscripts to be found online at

Nov. 04 2015 12:18 PM
Michelle H from Canada

The information in this episode is very interesting, but the utility of this is far from certain. All of the experiment mentioned here involve direct application to bacteria -- if I throw hydrochloric acid on MRSA, chances are it'll kill the bacteria 100% of the time, but it doesn't mean hydrochloric acid can be used at any time to treat MRSA infections. This podcast almost sensationalizes the discovery of this particular concoction, and the fact that it comes from the ye old times, without highlighting just how far it actually is from being of clinical use in modern times. Even if some intrepid patient applies this concoction as a poutice to an open wound of MRSA, and it works extremely well, we still can't say that the same effect will apply to systemic infections which are what often make people very ill. This is why behind every successful drug, there are hundreds if not thousands or tens of thousands of unsuccessful molecules. What is highlighted in this podcast is but one of those tens of thousands of molecules.

Nov. 04 2015 09:13 AM

Did you know Fleming's original working title for penicillin was 'mould juice'?

Anyway - pretty interesting episode. Would have liked to have heard what happened with the experiment in the end.

Also - I chuckled when someone said 'what the f--k' in supposedly old English only to have the regular English later bleeped. The US is so prudish... (Edit* apparently f--k isn't even allowed in the comments)

Nov. 04 2015 07:40 AM
A from Chicago

Ah, it just wouldn't be a RadioLab comment section without someone complaining about the speaking style...

Nov. 03 2015 01:43 PM
John from USA

The "style" of reporting has taken a downturn. Soren Wheeler in particular is headed for that sputtering/muttering nervous crap-speak that's commonplace over at This American Life and Snap Judgment.

Nov. 03 2015 12:47 PM
Thom Heil from Chicago, IL

Love the focus this episode on traditional medicine, especially from Europe where so much of that knowledge has been lost. This isn't really news to people who study and practice Chinese herbalism, though, both in China and here in the U.S.

It's not just that traditional Chinese herbal remedies have come back into vogue as a subject of scientific curiosity; they've actually been in continuous use for 2000 years. And there's no need to turn them into drugs. They work just fine the way they always have, as teas and soups. Maybe that's a topic for a future show?

In any case, it's always good to hear some love for traditional medicine from a public news outlet. Keep up the excellent work!

Nov. 03 2015 12:47 PM
Jeff from Chicago

What is that weird midieval music at the end credits? Excellent episode everyone; superb work.

Nov. 03 2015 10:10 AM
frantz from Frankfort, Germany

So what ever happened to that recipe? Is it being studied, is it being used?
Is it effective on hospital super bugs for which we don't have anything that is 99.999% effective?
We want more on that subject, please

Nov. 03 2015 06:14 AM
Joe Arnold from Boston, MA

Ok, yeah, but what's the *mechanism*??

If there's some ingredient, or combination of ingredients, that kill bacteria in a way we could use in a drug, well maybe we can go somewhere. If it's just an old way to make something nasty that kills bacteria on contact... well, we've already got topical antiseptics aplenty. We don't go injecting rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide into people.

Nov. 03 2015 05:10 AM

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