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Chemical Eye on Frankincense and Myrrh
by Preston MacDougall


December 23, 2005

Imagine that you are at a baby shower, and three Persian priests, or Magi, mysteriously appear, each offering a gift for the newborn child. (Hey, it could happen, I've heard of flash mobs doing stranger things. And I seem to recall a similar story being told around this time last year.)

jpg MacDougalls

The well-wishing MacDougall family.

When the first gift was opened, the aura of the reflected light was unmistakable, and there were plenty of ooh's and aah's over the hefty gift of many gold coins. When the second and third gifts were opened, it wasn't the sense of sight that gave hints to the guests. Rather, their sense of smell told them that the gifts were either some exotic perfume, or a potpourri of some kind.

After audible, and deep, inhalations, the ooh's and aah's came again, but this time they were followed by many questions. The Magi explained that the gifts were frankincense and myrrh. A lot of heads were nodding, but one inquisitive little boy piped up "What are frankincense and myrrh?"

It was then explained that both frankincense and myrrh are aromatic resins obtained from gums that are harvested from the bark of the Olibanum tree and the Myrrha bush, respectively. Both of these botanical species are naturally found in regions near the southern end of the Red Sea, where the Horn of Africa reaches out to the Arabian Peninsula. They also have long histories of medicinal uses, from the many corners of the globe to which they have been traded. In addition, both of these resins are variously refined into oils and sticks of incense that are used ceremoniously by several religions.

The Magi said that anyone who wanted specific information could simply go to a really informative website at, and type in "frankincense" or "myrrh". They added that frankincense is spelled phonetically, but myrrh is m-y-r-r-h.

Coincidentally, the father in the family being honored is a chemist. After listening to what the Magi had to say, it didn't take him long to figure out how he was going to put these gifts to use, and it didn't involve any fancy sachets. No, he was going to let his wife, who is a financial advisor, decide what to do with the gold, which, despite its heft and solid appearance, is quite a liquid asset. His plan for the frankincense and myrrh was to do some prospecting of a whole new kind.

Being a chemist, when he heard of the multiple, and storied healing powers of the resins, especially the creams and tinctures made from them, he naturally wondered what were the medicinally-active components among the thousands of chemical compounds that are bound to be present in any plant excretion. He had already put two and two together and figured out at least one of the nuggets to be found in this gold mine.

The odd spelling of myrrh rekindled a bad memory from one his Organic Chemistry final exams, where he had to suggest a possible synthetic pathway to myrrholic acid, whose molecular structure was given in the question. Only now did he realize that since the exam was the last one given the day before Christmas, his professor was trying to be clever. He was sure that all the 'A' students in the class got the joke, and the ten points. "Ho, Ho, Ho, Dr. Bell," he thought to himself.

Now that he was employed as a chemist, he had access to High Performance Liquid Chromatography instrumentation (that's "HPLC" for all the CSI fans), which would separate the soluble compounds from each other and allow them to be individually tested, or assayed, for pharmacological activity. He was sure that it would just be a matter of time, and testing, before one of the compounds was discovered to have a "miraculous" effect on some disease or another.

The Magi had mentioned that myrrh was used in the East Indies for treatment of rheumatism. With all the potential risks associated with Vioxx and Celebrex, success in this area would be most fortunate.

He was beginning to wonder if, perhaps, the proceeds of the gold liquidation couldn't be used to fund this research, so that he wouldn't have to cut the company in on any intellectual property rights.

His dreaming came to an end when the Magi left as abruptly as they had come, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy and Healthy New Year as they put on their long camel's-hair coats.


Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

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