From Medieval Magic to Modern Medicine
reprinted with permission from the Shedd Aquarium

When Shakespeare's witches stirred their stew of "Eye of newt, and toe of frog," in the fourth act of Macbeth, they were using folk knowledge nearly as old and widespread as humankind: Amphibians are strong medicine.

Traditional Chinese medicine treats heart ailments with a powder made of dried toad toxin that acts in the same way as digitalis to strengthen heart contractions. The Choco Indians of Colombia recognized the toxic properties of the brightly colored little frogs hopping around the rainforest floor, using them to make poison blowdarts for hunting. South American Indians knew other species of frogs had healing properties in their skin secretions and rubbed the animals across cuts and wounds.

On the other hand, European traditions attributed everything from warts to witchcraft to toads and their kin. The Western world's revulsion of these amphibians was epitomized by the sentiments of Carolus Linnaeus, the 18th-century Swedish taxonomist: "These foul and loathsome animals are abhorrent because of their cold body, pale color, cartilaginous skeleton, filthy skin, fierce aspect, calculating eye, offensive smell, harsh voice, squalid habitation, and terrible venom...."

In the last 30 years, scientists in the United States and elsewhere have discovered in the "venoms" (actually skin secretions) of a variety of frog and toad species hundreds of chemical compounds that could redefine the concept of "miracle drugs" - everything from potent painkillers to potential treatments for the most deadly cancers.

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