By Clare Sansom in Chemistry World.
All disease begins in the gut. That saying is attributed to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, who gave his name to the oath that doctors still use today. It is undoubtedly a simplification, but an enormous range of diseases, many with no digestive symptoms, have been associated with the gastro-intestinal (GI) tract. And some unusual therapies have arisen from there, too. In China, the use of healthy human faeces to treat some digestive disorders dates back over 1500 years. Much later, in the 16th century, Ming dynasty physician Li Shizhen gave patients with these problems a mixture of stool and water he named ‘yellow soup’ to drink.
Li is unlikely, however, to have known the active agent in his preparation: the microbes that live in our guts and that are therefore excreted in faeces. It would have been perhaps a century later when the so-called ‘father of microscopy’, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, turned the microscope of his own design on a sample of his stool and observed that it contained microbes, which he had termed – based on the Latin for ‘tiny animals’ – ‘animalcules’ (in a rough translation from the original Dutch ).
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