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Fighting Viral Outbreaks with Lomatia

Overview of Its History and Use by Southwestern Indians Against the Flu Pandemic of 1918

Note:  The plants Leptotaenia Dissecta, Leptotaenia Multifida, and Lomatium Dissectum will all be referred to as "L.D." in this paper for the sake of brevity.

During the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918, the effectiveness of Lomatium dissectum came to the attention of the American white man when it was observed that Native Americans in the Southwest were recovering rapidly from the virus that was killing others.  Ernest T. Krebs, Jr., noted biochemist and son of Ernest Krebs, MD, said, "This is to become one of the most important antibiotic herbs known to man."

He found that the Indians were peeling the dissectum root, drawing and boiling it, and skimming off the oil.  Using about a pound of the herb, the Indians were getting well within a week's time.  This herb, commonly known as wild parsley, was also used as a food and medicine by the American Indians of the Northwest.

As documented in the U.S. National Herbarium (Vol. VII, No.1, December 31,1900), L.D. was catalogued in 1840 as a genus of 11 species belonging to the Western United States and British Columbia.

In the cardinal issue of the Bulletin of the Nevada State Board of Health (January 1920, pp. 7-9), Krebs published an article titled "An Indian Remedy for Influenza."  The following are excerpts from that article:

"...  During the Fall of 1918 when the influenza visited Nevada, the Washoe Indians used a root in the treatment of their sick.  The plant proved to be a rare species of the parsley family (Leptotaemia dissecta).

"...  There was not a single death in the Washoe tribe from influenza or its complications, although Indians living in others parts of the state where the root did not grow died in numbers.

"A preparation was prepared and employed in a great many cases among the whites from the mildest to the most virulent types of influenza, and it proved, among other things, that it is the nearest approach we have today to a specific for epidemic influenza and the accompanying pneumonia.  Where used early, it proved itself to be a reliable agent in preventing pulmonary complications.… Its therapeutic action in this direction is established and beyond any doubt….  Its action on coughs is more certain than opiate expectorants....  It acts as a powerful tonic to the respiratory mucous membranes….  It is a bronchial, intestinal, and urinary antiseptic and is excreted by these organs....  It is a stimulative and sedative expectorant.

"Leptotaenia dissecta is destined to become one of the most useful if not the most important addition to our vegetable Material Medica."

The article also stated the methods of preparations, the difficulty in retaining its desirable properties while decocting, and the aside that it was not a common plant.  It has a brief harvest period, and trials in transplanting it had been unsuccessful.

In 1925, the American Pharmaceutical Association documented a chemical examination of the root of L.D. that began in 1923 (Vol. XIV, No.1, pp. 29-32).  That article contains all of the physical properties of L.D.

L.D. was first included in the publication Biological Abstracts, produced by the Union of American Biological Societies in Volume 4 (1930), p. 2123, entry number 22496.  It is subsequently revisited in later issues (Volume 8, October 1934, entry 19098;  Volume 12, 1938, entry 7157;  Volume 13, 1939, entry 1138;  Volume 15 1941, entry 13192;  Volume 16, 1942, entry 20882;  Volume 23,1949, entry 1352;  Volume 27,1953, entry 2112;  Volume 28, 1954, entry 6378;  and Volume 32, 1958, entry 24789).

In 1941, Medicinal Uses of Plants by Indian Tribes of Nevada was issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with the University of Nevada as the "Collaborator" on the publication.  The foreword states that:

"...Preliminary studies were begun in 1935 by the National Emergency Relief Administration in Reno under the sponsorship of the Carson Indian Agency and the University of Nevada... [for] securing data from the Nevada Indians regarding their medicinal use of native plants...."

That publication describes how information was obtained and from which individuals it was gained.  Plants of known Indian medicinal use of the Paiute, Shoshone, and Washoe tribes were exhibited, one at a time. 

Easily recognized by the Indian, the information was recorded by the interviewer and an individual report was made for each locality.  A comparison of the medical knowledge from each tribe was then made. 

L.D. contains one of the largest entries within the article.  A phonetic chart of the names by which L.D. were known to each tribe was made, and the results were the following (underlining denotes syllable stress): 

Paiute:  toh-aw-sav-ve;  toh-sa;  toh-sah-ahtoh-sup

Shoshone:  toh-aw-sa-ve;  toh-sah;  toh-sup

Washoe:  do-sa;  do-za

The following is a partial listing of uses of L.D. by the tribes:

  • Coughs/Colds/Sore Throat

  • Hayfever

  • Bronchitis

  • Influenza

  • Pneumonia

  • Tuberculosis

  • Asthma

  • Gonorrhea and other unspecified venereal diseases

  • Antiseptic

  • External wash for Smallpox

  • Healing agent for Skin Rashes, Cuts and Sores

  • Healing agent for Trachoma or Gonorrheal infections of the eye

  • Distemper of horses

In March, 1942 in the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, Leptotaenia is incorporated into the genus Lomatium due to their similarities.

In 1948, the Department of Pediatrics at the Western Reserve University School of Medicine and the Babies and Children's Division of the University Hospitals of Cleveland, Ohio collaborated and produced a paper titled "Antibiotic Agents Separated from the Root of Lace-Leaved Leptotaenia."  The research documented in the paper was supported in part by a grant from the U.S. Navy Office of Naval Research, and...

"...The first colorless oil was observed to inhibit completely Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli... after five minutes' contact with or without shaking.  No evidence of growth in cultures was observed in cultures removed after one hours' contact."

The paper contains a chart listing the effectiveness of L.D. against 41 strains and species of bacteria and 21 strains and species of mold and fungi.  It was determined to have inhibited—in varying degree—the growth of all microorganisms tested.  (Most were listed as "complete" and a few as "partial.")

In 1949, the Departments of Bacteriology and Chemistry at the University of Utah and the Latter-Day Saints Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah prepared "Antibiotic Studies on an Extract from Leptotaenia Multifeda."  It acknowledged that L.D. was used by the Gosiute Indians in Utah and that they applied it to open wounds, cuts, or bruises where the skin was broken.

Like the 1948 study by the Department of Pediatrics in Ohio listed above, this paper spells out the methods of extraction of the L.D. and its effectiveness against specific organisms and bacteria.  It is interesting to note that they concluded that "Penicillin G and [the extract] ... were roughly comparable in antibacterial activity..." and that "complete inhibition of acid-fast organisms, including M. tuberculosis... was observed [in extremely low concentrations]."

A thesis entitled "Studies of the Antibacterial and Antifungal Properties in Vitro of Oil Isolated from Leptotaenia Dissecta" was submitted to the Department of Medical Microbiology at the University of Southern California by a student in 1951.  In the thesis, L.D. was explored as an alternative to standard antibiotics due to their ineffectiveness in control of infectious diseases and their limited spectrum of activity.  The thesis arrives at the same conclusions as the two previous studies listed above.

The inhibition of growth of the influenza virus (PR8 strain) in embryonated eggs was observed and outlined in Bacteriological Proceedings by the Society of American Bacteriologists in 1951 and was described as "highly effective as a virucidal agent in vitro" (p. 85).  Prior to that publication, Richard H. Barnes, PhD, associate director of research for Sharp-Dohme, Inc. (which later merged with Merck), included in a letter to a colleague that:

"Sometime ago I believe I told you that our laboratory studies with [L.D. in crude preparation] were essentially complete.  Some of those studies have indicated a slight but definite, inhibitory action on influenza virus both in eggs and in [?] the results were of sufficient interest that it has been decided to present them at the coming meeting of the Society of American Bacteriologists."

In 1952, the Department of Bacteriology at the University of Utah conducted "Studies on an Antibiotic Extract of Leptotaenia Multifeda."  Dissimilar to previous studies that tested the effectiveness of L.D. in agar plate tests, this study tested on mice that had been intentionally infected with bacteria and viruses;  effectiveness as compared to tests conducted using penicillin was determined.  It was summarized that "the extract of the roots of[L.D.] exhibits relatively high activity against a wide variety of… bacteria."

In 1957, the U.S. Department of Agriculture produced a revision of the 1941 Medicinal Uses of Plants by Indian Tribes of Nevada.  This revision allowed for changes in the scientific names of flora and as an addition contains a table of "Results."  This edition of the study is on file with the Smithsonian Institution.

L.D. (referred to by the English-language name "Indian Balsam") was explored by an author in the 1959 book Indian Uses of Native Plants.  She states that L.D. "is the BIG MEDICINE in the Inter-Mountain areas and in Pacific Northwest" for colds (p. 37) and lists nearly all the same uses as described in the 1941 Medicinal Uses of Plants by Indian Tribes of Nevada listed above.

Similar to this book, another was published in 1972 entitled Sagebrush Doctors, and this book also categorizes L.D. according to the original uses of it by Native Americans.

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