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Dead Book Diaries - Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure; William Thomas Fernie (Acorns, Oak Bark & Galls)

Updated on October 13, 2014

About the book and its Author

The author, William Thomas Fernie, was in fact a medical doctor who has lived during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Little can be readily found about his life, but much can be said about the period in which he lived. He lived during a time of sweeping change bright on be scientific inquiry. At the time of writing, herbalism, the predecessor to pharmacology, was a recognized field of science, and very likely one of the few forms of medicine that was widely available.

.Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure (HSAMUC) was very likely to be intended as a sort of physicians desk reference for the purposes of providing a handy guide as to what plants do what. Many of the plants mentioned in this book were readily available to the average person in his native Britain. Although much has changed in the many fields of medical science, some of what has been written has been found to to be true.

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Why this Book, and Why a Multi-parter

The basic premise of the series is to find something of practical value to the modern world in the many antiquated texts that have become widely available via the internet. Typically, when I post a hub I put in a poll with the intention of giving readers a chance to choose what book they might want have reviewed next. If nothing is chosen by the readers at the end of a week, I pick a book from the selections on the poll that I found particularly interesting and review that book.

This week, the feature is a text that focuses exclusively on herbal simples. Unlike my previous two hubs, however, Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure (HSAMUC) is a substantially longer and more in depth textbook than either of them. To put it in perspective, the average length of the first two books reviewed would have been thirty pages in the EPUB format. HSAMUC by comparison is 400 pages long. Also, this is a medical text which means doing more in depth research to see what the science says with regards to the book's claims.

There is simply too much in this book for one hub to do it any justice. The result will be that each simple covered in HSAMUC will be reviewed and researched in order what page number each of the entries starts on in the book. With each claim made by the text I will see what the science says, and share my findings.

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Nuts of the Ancients

In addition to being a critical component of many forest ecosystems, acorns have enjoyed a prominent place in the diets of our ancestors, and as such have had a profound influence on our culture. The text mentions that early Greeks and pre-revolutionary French (out of desperation in the case of the latter) were consumers of acorns as a food source. It's also mentioned that it was a t one time a common practice in Britain to herd pigs into the forests for purpose of fattening them up before their slaughter in the winter.

While all of this is certainly true, it is not the whole story as many cultures throughout the world either have, or (to a lesser extant) still do utilize acorns as a food source. One of the most recent examples of this are the use of acorns as substitute for coffee during both the American Civil War and WWII. In both instances, acorns were used as a replacement for the beverage due to the unavailability of real coffee during those wars.

Acorn Consumption

Although the chart pictured here isn't complete, it does help to paint a picture of how common place acorn use has been in the world.
Although the chart pictured here isn't complete, it does help to paint a picture of how common place acorn use has been in the world. | Source

Acorns aren't for Everyone

While many animals can safely eat acorns as a regular part of their diet they are toxic to some animals, like cattle and horses.They can't process the tannin that make acorns taste so bitter, and are poisoned by them if they eat too many.
While many animals can safely eat acorns as a regular part of their diet they are toxic to some animals, like cattle and horses.They can't process the tannin that make acorns taste so bitter, and are poisoned by them if they eat too many. | Source
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Bark and Twigs

Although HSAMUC's entery is titled Acorns it actually covers a total of three specific parts of the of the oak tree. In addition to the sections titular entry the subject of oak bark and and oak galls. Oak bark, obviously the outer part of the tree, has been used as a principle source of tannin for leather production and general dyeing.

The galls, a product of wasp, moths, and other insect laying their eggs in the bark and leaves of the trees, were for the longest time used to make iron gall ink. The ink was the principle writing medium in the west from the Middle Ages until ink formulas better suited to writing on paper were developed in the 20th century.

Both have also been seen as medical materia through out the course of human history. Each culture not only did many have some specific methods of use for both in terms of medicine and industry, but species of oak tree that are unique to those regions.

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The Book's Claims to Medical Materia

Fernie makes several claims about products derived from parts of the oak tree. Nearly all of them fall well within the range of what they are traditionally used for. These include...

  • Treating the muscle wasting/atrophy associated with childhood scrofula (tuberculosis) by increasing the appetite with an acorn tincture or extract via ingestion.
  • Treating the effects of alcohol, specifically spleen and kidney damage and the dropsy (edema) brought on by such damage with an acorn tincture via ingestion.
  • Using gallo-tannic acid from the bark and galls to control internal bleeding via ingestion.

  • Grinding a fine powder of oak bark and frequently snorting/inhaling it to treat lung damage brought on by early stage consumption (tuberculosis).
  • Using a strong brew or tincture of oak bark to treat a prolapse in the large intestine.

Bactria 101

Antibiotic Resistance

They Busted in with Science!

So how does all this stand up to the tests of both time and scientific inquiry? To start, the species of oak tree must first be narrowed down. Luckily, this is the easiest part. As he was a British physician it was most likely that Fernie was thinking of the plants that were readily available to his fellow countryman. As such, he goes as far as to mention Quercus robur (a.k.a. English or pedunculate oak) towards the end of the entry.

The hard part is finding evidence to support these claims, and that's not always easy, but it does help to have some idea what your looking for. Starting with the use Q. robur in the treatment of the many forms of tuberculosis (TB). As TB is a bacterial infection, it makes sense to see if the plant has any potential as a source of antibiotics. Surprisingly, that answer is yes.

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Antibiotic Potential

In the October - December 2011 edition of the Romanian Archives of Microbiology and Immunology published a preliminary study in which rats were given a standardized ethanol based acorn extract to rats that had been infected with different Gram-negative and Gram-posotive intestinal pathogens. During the study the scientists infected rats with K. pneumoniae, E. coli, S. aureus, S. typhi, and P. aeroginosa. There where two controls that didn't receive treatment. One group was subdivided according to which bacteria they were infected with, and the other control group was never infected in the first place. There were five experimental groups, each infected with a different bacteria.

The experimental groups where given the same dose of an ethanol-based acorn extract. After five days the infected rats that received treatment showed no traces of the bacteria in their fecal droppings, and ultimately lived to see another experiment. The infected rats that didn't receive treatment had all died by that time, with the exception being the untreated rats that had been infected with S. aureus; which died after 8 days.

The study came to the conclusion that acorns themselves had imminence potential for acorns, specifically the tannins contained in acorns, for use as an antibiotic resource. However, a great deal more study would be required to confirm this. Also the study focused on intestinal pathogens, nasty gut bugs not airborne germs like tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis is also unique in that it's caused by acid-fast Gram-positive bacteria. Its exterior resists the water-based dyes used in Gram-staining. This means that any antibacterial agent would need to have some pretty distinctive chemical properties to have any meaningful effect on it. A great deal more testing would be requires to determine if acorns could provide a broad-spectrum antibiotic that could be used against this kind of airborne bacterial infection.

The preliminary study is promising, not conclusive, but promising. As a bonus, the study (due to it's focus on intestinal bacteria) indicates potential for use in combating gastro-intestinal (G.I.) tract infections. As these are typically food-borne illnesses most people living in the developed world aren't likely to encounter them, but people who live in under-developed not so much.

Now for the Bad News

Unfortunately, there is no evidence supporting any of the other claims. There are treatments for them, but not one could possibly benefit from acorns, or other oak products. Part of this had to do with the cause of the malady. In the case of prolapse, organs have shifted out of their place. There are several risk factors, but no singular cause of it. There would be no befit to the patient beyond the placebo effect, and that's assuming that they are familiar with the anecdotal literature, or have otherwise been told by the doctor administering treatment that it would help.

It would be very much the same the edema brought on by damage to the spleen or kidneys, regardless of how the organs in question were damaged. Nor would acorns and other oak products really be of any use for control of internal bleeding. There simply isn't enough evidence to support those claims. That isn't to say that the evidence won't be one day produced. There just isn't any now.

Conclusion

This particular entry in HSAMUC was at best limited in accuracy. Acorns have been shown to have some potential as a source of antibiotic medicine, but nothing else. It is useful in that it can point you in the right direction.

It gives you an ingredient and a means of preparation, however, the applications which are prescribed by Fernie prove to be useless as our understanding of disease has changed since the books initial publication. Still, we were pointed in the right direction and found what my well be an invaluable resource in treating bacterial infection. It will serve us well so long as we remember not to abuse it.

Liniments 101

Disclaimer

I am not a doctor, nor do I hold a position of employment any where within the medical field. If any suggestion of any kind relating to such is made, please do not pursue it without first consulting your primary care physician. If after have that discussion with your doctor, and they say no, then it is in your best interests to listen to them.

Now for Something Fun

With initial studies indicating that acorns, oak bark, and oak galls have some antibiotic properties there is little doubt that someone somewhere will want to try it out in some fashion. So here's something that you can try at home.

Tips for the Production of a Liniment

  • Do the research and learn as much as you can about the biochemical properties of the herb(s) that you wish to include. This will serve to guide your application of the finished product.
  • Always measure your ingredients by weight, no exceptions, this will give you more consistent results.
  • Sterilize the all parts of the containers that you will be making you tincture in. It will do you no good whatsoever to have any liniment (or other infusion you make for that matter) contaminated by microbes, especially if you are making the tincture to combat them.
  • Grind your dry ingredients as finely as possible before adding your liquid, it will ensure that you get the most out of the herbs you put into it.
  • Liniments are strictly topical ointments. Feel free to use a liquid carrier that you don't ever plan on drinking, but beware some compounds dissolve more readily in some substances than others.
  • Give it time. Liniment production is like wine making in that the potency increases the longer the herb(s) sit in the jar before straining.

Given available research materials, an acorn liniment can be used the same way Neosporin is. After washing a minor wound, dab on the liniment with a fresh cotton ball and slap on a bandaid.

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