Teacher background information


Year 10 Science Content Description

Science as a Human Endeavour

Use and influence of science

Values and needs of contemporary society can influence the focus of scientific research (ACSHE230 - Scootle )

  • investigating how disease outbreaks and the emergence of drug-resistant infections have focused scientific research into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’ traditional medicines to identify effective therapeutic compounds for the use in pharmaceuticals (OI.5, OI.9)

Since Australia was colonised, Western science has looked to the pharmacopeia of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The early Australian colonists were isolated far from their own homes and had little or no access to Western medicines or their own folk remedies. Although most colonists disparaged the health and well-being practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it is widely accepted that many colonists did in fact develop ‘bush medicines’ based on observations of the use of traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander pharmacopeia. Fast forward to today and we can again see a need to investigate the active compounds in traditional pharmaceuticals. 

Students gain awareness of the fact that contemporary society is continually facing outbreaks of increasingly virulent strains of diseases accompanied by the decreased effectiveness of some medicines. These global issues are having a major influence on the focus of scientific research into the development of new, efficacious medicines. Scientists, in collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, continue to investigate the potential of traditional medicines as a source of novel pharmaceuticals for treating modern illnesses.

Evolution pressures and the extensive use of antibiotics by contemporary society have driven the emergence of highly virulent strains of diseases that are resistant to many medicines. Since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, and its subsequent use to treat infections, scientists have been searching for other new treatments and antimicrobial agents. There is now a growing awareness that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ knowledge of medicinal plants can provide new medicines and/or lead to the discovery of new pharmaceuticals for treating infections. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people possess a vast amount of knowledge about traditional pharmaceuticals derived from myriad sources. These medicines have been, and continue to be developed over millennia through observation and experimentation and are passed down through generations via histories, songs, and rituals. 

Some of this knowledge was incorporated into colonisers’ ‘bush remedies’, such as relieving aching joints by applying a poultice made from the creeper Clematis microphylla. Other examples of early adoption of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander healing methods include the inhalation of eucalyptus oil (from Eucalyptus spp.) to relieve respiratory problems and throat infections, and the topical application of tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) for wounds and skin infections. 

Prior to the Second World War, some drugs based on alkaloids were manufactured in Germany. One of these was hyoscine hydrobromide which was used as a sedative and to relieve motion sickness. When the war began, alternative sources of this chemical had to be found by the Allies. Australian researchers found it in the leaves of the corkwood tree (Duboisia myoporoides), a plant used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to relieve stomach pain and to stupefy fish in waterholes. After the war, commercial plantations of Duboisia were established to produce the raw materials for a pharmaceutical that is still widely used as a digestive tract muscle relaxant to treat stomach aches and intestinal problems. 

The kangaroo apple, Solanum laciniatum, produces a fruit that has long been used by Aboriginal peoples in poultices to treat swollen joints. Scientists have found that the fruit contains the steroid solasodine, which is an important precursor for producing cortisone and other steroids for use in oral contraceptives, and for the treatment of a range of illnesses, including asthma and arthritis.  

Other recent studies of Aboriginal pharmacopeia have found that the seeds of the Moreton Bay chestnut (Castanospermum australe) contain castanospermine, a chemical that may be useful in the treatment of cancer and inhibiting HIV. Antiviral activity has been found in the boiled roots of the Pale Flax-lily (Dianella longifolia), used as a medicine to inhibit poliovirus Type 1, and the Crimson Turkey-bush (Eremophila latrobei), used for treating colds and the Ross River virus.  

Further investigation into traditional medicines may identify other therapeutic compounds with the potential for commercialisation. By investigating the historical and contemporary interest in the rich pharmacopeia of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, students can appreciate the highly-developed medical knowledge held by Australia’s First Peoples and their significant contributions to contemporary medical science. 

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.

Boehringer Ingelheim Pty. Ltd. (n.d.) Duboisia: A special plant, Duboisia bush. Retrieved from http://www.buscopan.com.au/how_it_works/duboisia.html

Bradley, V., Collins, D. J., Crabbe, P. G., Eastwood, F. W., Irvine, M. C., Swan, J. M., & Symon, D. E. (1978). A survey of Australian Solanum plants for potentially useful sources of Solasodine. Australian Journal of Botany, 26(6), 723-754.

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.

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

Foley, P. (2006). Duboisia myoporoides: The medical career of a native Australian plant. Historical Records of Australian Science, 17(1), 31-69.

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

Indigi Lab. (2016). Biopiracy: When Indigenous knowledge is patented for profit. Retrieved from http://www.indigilab.com.au/biology/biopiracy-when-indigenous-knowledge-is-patented-for-profit/

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

Lane, P. K. (Producer). (2016). How to make coconut oil - Torres Strait [Video file]. Retrieved from http://tsitv.atsiphj.com.au/index.php?option=com_videoflow&task=play&id=598

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. 

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.

Nakatsuji, T., Kao, M. C., Fang, J.-Y., Zouboulis, C. C., Zhang, L., Gallo, R. L., & Huang, C. M. (2009). Antimicrobial property of lauric acid against Propionibacterium acnes: Its therapeutic potential for inflammatory Acne Vulgaris. The Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 129(10), 2480-2488. doi:10.1038/jid.2009.93

Nevin, K. G., & Rajamohan, T. (2010). Effect of topical application of virgin coconut oil on skin components and antioxidant status during dermal wound healing in young rats. Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, 23(6), 290-297.

Patel, S. S., & Savjani, J. K. (2015). Systematic review of plant steroids as potential anti-inflammatory agents: Current status and future perspectives. The Journal of Phytopharmacology, 4(2), 121-125.

Pearn, J. (2004, September). Medical ethnobotany of Australia: Past and present. Paper presented at the The Linnean Society, Piccadilly, London.

Shilling, M., Matt, L., Rubin, E., Visitacion, M. P., Haller, N. A., Grey, S. F., & Woolverton, C. J. (2013). Antimicrobial effects of virgin coconut oil and its medium-chain fatty acids on Clostridium difficile. Journal of Medicinal Food, 16(12), 1079-1085. doi:10.1089/jmf.2012.0303

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