Dr. J. Martyn Bailey and Friend Aim to Learn If Garlic and Onion Clear Arteries as Well as Rooms

updated 05/05/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/05/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The ancient Romans ate garlic as an aphrodisiac

Rabbit, garlic and onions are, for the gourmet, the start of a tasty ragout de lapin. For Dr. J. Martyn Bailey, they are the ingredients in a far-reaching scientific experiment to combat heart disease. Bailey, a biochemist, is in charge of an 18-month project at George Washington University that will try to determine whether feeding rabbits purified garlic and onion (its close cousin) will mean healthier hearts.

His preliminary research has suggested that the two vegetables contain chemicals which may reduce clotting in the coronary arteries and thus decrease the threat of heart attack. This reasearch—done in test tubes, not in lab animals—was inspired by an article in a medical journal from India. Bailey's subsequent paper on his findings was published by the prestigious British medical magazine The Lancet in April 1979.

Bailey will conduct at least three rounds of experiments, feeding a control group of rabbits large amounts of cholesterol. His experimental group of rabbits will get the same amount of cholesterol plus garlic or onion extract. Autopsies on the rabbits will reveal which have greater fatty deposits in the arteries that may cause clotting and trigger an attack.

"Until we have definite results," Bailey cautions, "we donhh't want the whole country to go off eating onions and garlic"—although probably neither would hurt a heart patient, or anyone else, for that matter. "People have been eating them for thousands of years," he observes, "as far back as ancient Egypt." Garlic, in particular, also has a pungent history as a folk medicine of sometimes mythical proportions.

The Greek historian Herodotus noted that Egyptian laborers building the pyramid of Cheops refused to work without a daily ration of garlic. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, prescribed garlic as a laxative and diuretic, as well as a remedy for uterine tumors. A first-century Greek physician, Dioscorides, also prophetically announced garlic "doth clear the arteries." The Romans thought it was an aphrodisiac.

More recently Louis Pasteur tested garlic as an antiseptic. Eleanor Roosevelt was reported to have taken three capsules of chocolate-covered garlic oil each morning in the belief that it improved her memory. Russians in the 1960s ate it to prevent the flu, and Blue Cross told its subscribers in 1978 that garlic and onions helped to lower cholesterol.

Garlic even has a fan club, the Lovers of the Stinking Rose, based in Berkeley, Calif. Bailey is not a member. At mealtime, he says, his own taste runs solely to onions. A 49-year-old native of Wales, he earned his doctorate at the University of Wales, did heart research at the Johns Hopkins Medical School, and joined the George Washington faculty in 1959. He and his wife, Barbara, 39, live in Great Falls, Va. with their three children.

Bailey is an ardent amateur astronomer who has published a paper on the origins of the moon in the British science journal Nature. He's also currently studying the effects of alcohol on heart disease, testing a theory that moderate drinking also cuts down on cholesterol deposits. He cautions that all of his current research is speculative. According to present indications, he adds, a person would have to eat a half pound of garlic or onion every day, preferably raw but perhaps boiled, to derive any benefits.

That could lead to a boom in the mouthwash industry. Bailey has simple advice for dealing with anyone who, for medical or gastronomic reasons, indulges heavily in garlic or onions. "Eat them yourself," he says, "in self-defense."

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