When one man’s lost finger is society’s gain

3 minute read

Learning from traditional owners is something Western medicine should do more of, to everyone’s advantage.

I don’t know about you, dear readers, but if I’d had my finger bitten off by a crocodile my first thought would be using my remaining appendages to get as far from that snappy bugger as possible before it developed a taste for me.

History doesn’t tell us what Nyikina Mangala man John Watson did immediately after losing his finger to a Kimberley croc in 1986 but we do know he turned subsequently to the nearest Mudjala mangrove tree, chewed on a strip of bark and applied it to the wound for pain relief.

It worked. Of course it did – thousands of years of culture and knowledge told him it would.

When Professor Ron Quinn AM from Griffith University heard of John’s crocodilic adventure, and his use of the Mudjala bark, he was intrigued enough to get in touch. 

That led to a partnership between the Nyikina Mangala people and Griffith University under the leadership of Mr Watson and Professor Quinn, seeking to identify what active compounds could be present in the bark.

What they’ve come up with is a novel, natural remedy for the treatment of severe pain. 

The bark contains two classes of compound: one is effective for inflammatory pain and the other mitigates sciatic nerve injury. The resulting product – a possible topical gel – will be based on the complex mixtures present within the bark paste.

Mr Watson and Professor Quinn hope the gel could be supplied to athletes at the 2032 Brisbane Olympics, heralding widespread application for Traditional Knowledge, while maintaining Aboriginal ownership.

Late last month their work was rewarded more immediately at the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering awards where they picked up the inaugural Traditional Knowledge Innovation prize.

ATSE’s winning engineers and technologists were recognised for their groundbreaking work on Australia’s toughest issues, spanning climate change, mining, plastic waste, battery tech and food security among others, during a ceremony at the National Arboretum in Canberra.

ATSE President, Dr Katherine Woodthorpe AO, said the winners’ innovation, drive, and impact were exemplars for the game-changing application of Australian research. 

From tea-tree oil as an antiseptic, to the kakadu plum and its massive vitamin C content, to kangaroo apples and their steroid used for the production of cortisone Traditional Knowledge is vast and vastly underused.

It’s not just community-controlled health that First Nations people are doing right, folks. We need to listen more, fair dinkum.

And stay away from the salties, obvs.

Send your snappy story ideas to cate@medicalrepublic.com.au.

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