From Folk to Pharma: Unlocking the medicine cabinet to understand lay approaches for managing common infections in the past and present

Project Details


In 1929 Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, but the importance of this first antibiotic was not fully realised until the early 1940s when large scale manufacturing processes were developed. This widescale production of antimicrobials, in particular antibiotics, has saved millions of lives and on average adds 20 years to life expectancy across the World.

Nowadays most people in affluent countries, such as the UK, have grown up with the idea that simple infections can be easily treated and will not become serious. If you get strep throat, you can have antibiotics. If you get a skin infection, you get a topical treatment. Often, people think of antibiotics as cheap remedy, something you take for a week and you are done.

This project is part of an ambitious programme of work to understand how people who remember the pre-antibiotic era managed common infections and how they coped with the risks of these infections. We are interested in exploring how members of the public managed infections in the pre-antibiotic era through a historical lens, bringing lay experiences of health and illness from a primary care perspective into the existing corpus of medical history. Through archival research we will identify and investigate ‘traditional’ remedies and place them within their historical and medical contexts. We will also seek to speak with individuals who remember the pre-antibiotic era and listen to their experiences about managing such illnesses in the past – experiences that urgently need to be collected before they fade or are lost to future generations. Our findings will be used to develop public engagement events designed to discuss the present-day value and relevance of these historic attitudes and remedies for the management of minor infectious diseases today.

Research questions
1) What can members of the public recall about their attitudes to, and how they managed mild infections, in the pre-antibiotic era?
2) What is the relevance of pre-antibiotic era attitudes and strategies to the present-day management of mild common infections?
3) How can we meaningfully translate our findings into resources to help support present-day patient-GP discussions about self-management of mild infections without antibiotics (where appropriate)?
Effective start/end date9/01/2031/07/20


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