The Magi: kings or pioneering API importers?

19-Dec-2013 - By Gareth MacDonald+
Ancient drug delivery tech lacked finesse
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Importing drugs and ingredients from the East is not a new idea, but did the practice start 2000 years ago in Judea? 

Gold, as at least one wise man knew, is always likely to be well received, particularly if the recipients in question are a young couple looking to upgrade to a penthouse manger with an en suite and view of Bethlehem's historic old town.

Sadly, the nativity story doesn’t say either what the holy family did with its gold or why indeed the Magi gave it in the first place. One possible reason for choice of gift - beyond its value as currency or jewellery - is its importance as an ingredient in traditional medicines.

2,000 years ago in China, for example, gold was used to cure infectious diseases like small pox and heal ulcers.

In neighbouring India, ancient documents suggest a golden elixir called “Swarna Bhasma” was used as an impotence treatment. Sadly the records do not include details of the drug's efficacy or whether it was targeted by counterfeiters to the same extent as some of its modern equivalents.

Today gold continues to be used in medicine according to Professor Rod Flower, honorary Fellow of the British Pharmacological Society, who told it is the only one of the gifts featured in the nativity story whose therapeutic credentials are still credible.

Gold has been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis for decades.  The preparation approved today is sodium aurothiomalate, a soluble complex. It is used for the treatment of selected patients with the disease who do not respond to other medications.  

It can be very effective but it also produces a swathe of unwanted effects too.  No one really knows how it works but it accumulates in cells of the immune system and possibly acts there.”

Gold!? I thought we agreed a $10 limit!

To modern sensibilities, gifts of frankincense and myrrh would probably be considered underwhelming at best, particularly in comparison with gold.

There are - for example - no legends about fabulous lost cities of frankincense that have lured generations of explorers to the jungles of South America and 1980s new romantic pop pioneers Spandau Ballet never suggested anyone was indestructible on the basis that he or she was "Myrrh!" 

However, at the time, the reaction to the gifts may have been more positive because, like gold, both are also used in traditional treatments.

The ancient Egyptians loved myrrh. According to fifth century BC Greek historian Herodotus the oil was an essential part of the embalming process, employed as a sun screen and widely used as a scent masking agent.

Also, myrrh was (and still is) used in the Indian Ayurvedic system of medicine to treat mouth disorders. But, while myrrh continues to be used in modern mouthwashes and aromatherapy, from the point of view modern medicine it doesn’t cut the mustard according to Prof Flower.

There are lots of claims for myrrh’s efficacy but little really hard evidence. It is used as an ingredient in hygiene products such as mouthwash, toothpaste and the like.  Probably it has a mild antiseptic action.  It has been tested as an analgesic but again, conclusive evidence of efficacy is hard to find.”

The same is true for frankincense said Prof Flower, even despite the fact it contains compounds related to substances called terpenes, which are used in modern drug production.

Some terpenes have well-established medicinal uses as precursors to making steroids and statins,” he explained, adding that vitamin A is also a terpene.

But that doesn't mean that the compounds in frankincenses are biologically active and I struggled to find anything really reliable. It has been tested as an antidepressant and as an anti-inflammatory but the evidence is not conclusive yet.”


Whether or not the gifts given in the nativity story were selected as a result of contemporary beliefs about their medical benefits is unclear - one religious history academic we contacted told us "Sorry Gareth - I really have no idea."

What is true to say is that of the three only gold has evidence to support its use in Western Medicine and that - on that basis - defining the Magi as early API importers is a bit of a stretch.

Related topics: Ingredients, APIs (active pharmaceutical ingredients)