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Zinc: a miracle cure for more than 2,000 years

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  January 9, 2013 11:29 AM

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As illness grips the Northeast, a note from cold seasons past. In an article published Monday, a team of scientists propose that six gray tablets recovered from a 2,200 year old shipwreck off the coast of Italy were in fact an ancient medical remedy made from that most trendy of ingredients: zinc.

The tablets were recovered in the late 1980s, preserved for millenia at the bottom of the ocean inside airtight tin containers, but their precise ingredients were not known until just recently. Now, thanks to techniques like DNA analysis and spectroscopy, the Italian researchers have been able to determine the tablets' exact composition. There's a stew of organic ingredients, including carrots, parsley, and wild onion, but as the medicine blog at Nature.com reports, by far the main component is zinc, which the ancient Etruscans likely obtained by scraping down the walls of furnaces used to make copper. The size and shape of the discs has led the research team to speculate that they could have been used on the eyes, kind of like a premodern cucumber treatment.

Zinc, of course, is also the main ingredient in Cold-Eeze, the popular OTC lozenge that adherents swear shortens the duration of a cold. The actual therapeutic of benefits of zinc are unproven and this new discovery may provide fodder for both sides of the debate. For conservative-minded cold sufferers, the fact that zinc has persisted for millenia can be taken as a sign of its value as a medicine. Skeptics, however, are likely to reply that we'd do well to avoid just about all medical practices from 2,000 years ago.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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