Teacher background information


Year 10 Science Content Description

Science as a Human Endeavour

Nature and development of science

Scientific understanding, including models and theories, is contestable and is refined over time through a process of review by the scientific community (ACSHE191 - Scootle )

  • investigating how prior to germ theory Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples used their scientific observations to develop traditional medicines to treat wounds and infections of the skin (OI.5)

This elaboration describes opportunities for students to learn about how our understanding of diseases and their causes has been refined over time. It also provides opportunities for students to learn how the processes of contemporary science can demonstrate the effectiveness of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ traditional treatments of wound infections. These treatments relied on rich and sophisticated scientific knowledge that predates the development of western science’s germ theory. 

People have grappled with the causation of diseases for millennia and have typically viewed the causes of illness from three broad perspectives: natural, human and supernatural. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have diverse and complex beliefs regarding illnesses relating to the human and supernatural categories. These two categories come under the umbrella of secret and sacred knowledges. Aspects associated with these categories may only be shared by the relevant community and persons with authority to do so. Consequently, this elaboration is specifically about illnesses associated with the natural category.

The germ theory of disease states that many diseases and infections are caused by specific micro-organisms (germs) invading the body. Until the acceptance of germ theory in the 1870s, there were two viewpoints prevalent in western thought regarding the origin of infections and diseases. More than two thousand years ago, Greek philosophers proposed the theory of spontaneous generation which asserted that living organisms could arise from non-living matter. Even though micro-organisms had been observed in the 1670s, it was thought, for example, that wound infections arose spontaneously rather than from contact with infectious material. 

The miasma theory held that diseases were caused by inhaling foul-smelling poisonous vapours or gases in the air. These miasmas tended to be prevalent where there was rotting matter, such as in swamps or in densely populated urban places which had poor sanitation. Miasmas matched the locations where diseases such as cholera occurred. Improved sanitation led to a reduction in outbreaks of disease, so observations supported the miasma theory. 

However, belief in the miasma theory prevented medical practitioners from realising the true nature of infectious diseases for many years. It was only through intense debate and the work of people such as John Snow, Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister, that the miasma theory was finally refuted and Western science accepted germs as the causative agent of disease and infection. Lister had hypothesised that the infections that killed up to 50 per cent of surgical patients were due to germs entering the wound. He began washing his hands and sterilising his instruments and wound dressings with carbolic acid (now known as phenol) before operating on his patients. In the 1870s his antiseptic surgical methods were shown to work and became common practice.  

These practices can be compared with those that European colonists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries observed when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples effectively treated skin infections and serious physical injuries, such as spear wounds. These traditional practices for treating wounds and infections had been developed and used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples over millennia – the knowledge being encoded and passed down through generations via example and oral history. For example, it has been recorded that Torres Strait Islander peoples have used coconut oil to treat wound infections. Aboriginal peoples of northern New South Wales were observed using the crushed leaves of the Melaleuca alternifolia (tea) tree as a poultice for wounds. The leaves were also brewed into a ‘tea’ for coughs, colds and throat infections.  

Such treatments are part of the vast pharmacopeia of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, and rely on rich and sophisticated scientific knowledge that predates the development of Western science’s germ theory. This knowledge was compiled through acute observation and testing and trialling plant and non-plant-based materials as medicines. The amassed knowledge included information about the location, optimal collection time, and methods for preparing medicinal materials.  

It was not until the 1920s that Western science started to make careful analyses of the active components of the Aboriginal pharmacopeia, such as tea tree oil, and their medicinal properties. It was found that tea tree oil was about eleven times as strong as carbolic acid (phenol), the disinfectant of the day. These active components were also found to have antimicrobial, antifungal, antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. Tea tree oil is now incorporated into many topical formulations to treat skin infections, and there is continued research, in collaboration with Aboriginal communities, into the therapeutic properties of their pharmacopeia. In addition, coconut oil has been found to contain numerous medicinal properties including antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral and antiparasitic activity.  

By investigating examples of how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples used and continue to use their pharmacopeia to treat wounds and skin infections, students gain a deeper knowledge of, and a greater appreciation for, the richness of the scientific knowledge held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The elaboration also provides students with further opportunities to investigate examples of how the broader scientific community is constantly seeking to review and refine scientific understanding.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

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Australian Geographer. (1931). “Tea” tree, not “Ti” tree.  Australian Geographer, 1(3), 49-49. doi:10.1080/00049183108702076

Barr, A., Bernard Hames Collection, & Aboriginal Communities of the Northern Territory of Australia. (1988). Traditional bush medicines: An Aboriginal pharmacopoeia. Richmond, Vic: Greenhouse Publications.

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Carson, C. F., Riley, T. V., & Hammer, K. A. (2005). Compilation and review of published and unpublished Tea Tree oil literature: A report for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. Australia: Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.

Carson, C. F., Hammer, K. A., & Riley, T. V. (2006). Melaleuca alternifolia (Tea Tree) oil: A review of antimicrobial and other medicinal properties. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 19(1), 50-62. doi:10.1128/CMR.19.1.50–62.2006

Clarke, P. (2008). Aboriginal healing practices and Australian bush medicine. Journal of the Anthropological Society of South Australia, 33, 1-38.  Retrieved from http://www.friendsofglenthorne.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Clarke-Vol-33-2008.pdf

DebMandal, M., & Mandal, S. (2011). Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.: Arecaceae): in health promotion and disease prevention. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine, 4(3), 241-247.  DOI: 10.1016/S1995-7645(11)60078-3

Haddon, A. C. (1935). Reports of the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits: Vol. 1. London: Cambridge University Press.

Kamenev, M. (2011). Top 10 Aboriginal bush medicines. Retrieved from http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/topics/history-culture/2011/02/top-10-aboriginal-bush-medicines/

Karamanou, M., Panayiotakopoulos, G., Tsoucalas, G., Kousoulis, A. A., & Androutsos, G. (2012). From miasmas to germs: A historical approach to theories of infectious disease transmission. Le Infezioni in Medicina, 20(1), 58-62.

Liu, Q., Harrington, D., Kohen, J. L., Vemulpad, S., & Jamie, J. F. (2006). Bactericidal and cyclooxygenase inhibitory diterpenes from Eremophila sturtii. Phytochemistry, 67(12), 1256-1261.

Locher, C., Semple, S. J., & Simpson, B. S. (2013). Traditional Australian Aboriginal medicinal plants: An untapped resource for novel therapeutic compounds? Future Medicinal Chemistry, 5(7), 733-736.

Low, T. (1990). Bush medicine: A pharmacopoeia of natural remedies. North Ryde: Collins/Angus and Robertson Publishers Australia.

Mackie, J., Tanega, C., Boon, H., & Borins, M. (2014). Tea Tree oil for infections. In M. Borins & B. Siegel (Eds.), A doctor's guide to alternative medicine: What works, what doesn't, and why. Montana, USA: Lyons Press.

Penfold, A. R., & Grant, R. (1923). The germicidal values of the principal commercial Eucalyptus oils and their pure constituents, with observations on the value of concentrated disinfectants. Australia: Royal Society of New South Wales.

Poll, M. (2013). Tea Tree: Australia’s oldest medicine. MUSE, (5), 6-7.

Sadgrove, N., & Jones, G. (2015). A contemporary introduction to essential oils: Chemistry, bioactivity and prospects for Australian agriculture. Agriculture, 5(1), 48-102.

Shnukal, A. (2008). Traditional Mua. Memoirs of the Queensland Museum: Cultural Heritage Series, 4(2), 7-33.

Stack, E. M. (1989). Aboriginal pharmacopoeia. Occasional papers (Northern Territory Library Service), 10.

Stubbs, B. J. (2003). Captain Cook's beer: The antiscorbutic use of malt and beer in late 18th century sea voyages. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 12(2), 129.

Wet Tropics Management Authority. (n.d.) Australia's tropical rainforests World Heritage fact sheet: Bush medicines. Cairns, Qld: Wet Tropics Management Authority.