Among the treatments that were recommended by witches (or those who may be accused of witchcraft in Europe dating back to the middle ages), one might find preparations of willow bark and/or leaves. The association between these parts of the willow tree and pain relief were made well beforehand–dating back to perhaps Mesopotamia, the ancient Egyptians, ancient Greeks, and Native Americans, to name a few.
Many cultures noted that this plant had seemingly magical properties. Within the leaves and bark of the willow plant (and some others), it contains a type of molecule called a salicylate. By itself, it can decrease inflammation and swelling, thereby aiding in pain relief and decreasing fever.
If you’re the type of person who likes to mix chemicals and do reactions, you might have been Felix Hoffman, a German chemist who is ultimately (though with some controversy) credited with combining salicylic acid with acetic acid while he was working at Bayer in 1897. This created acetylsalicylic acid which we know as Aspirin. In this more refined form, that willow derivative functions as a much better anti-swelling and anti-pain medication. It also happens to stop platelets–a portion of the blood that helps form clots–from clumping together. This led to its still continuing role as a cardiovascular medication. If clots aren’t bunching up in narrow arteries, one might expect fewer heart attacks or strokes to occur.
Here we have another modern medication with part of its roots in the apothecary cabinet of your friendly, neighborhood medieval witch. Much better than the leeches and purging agents your medieval doctor may have recommended since the willow bark actually worked, after all.
Doctor with a mustache.
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