As L.P Hartley poignantly noted: “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” This sentiment is no truer than in relation to the practice of medicine, with the history of the noble profession rife with absurd and dangerous methods believed to have been beneficial for patients. Whilst some developments were reasonable, including the introduction of rudimentary surgical tools during the Greco-Roman era or even the use of urine for sterilization during the Middle Ages, some were merely ineffectual, such as the widespread use of benign patent medicines during the late 19th century, and others were just manifestly insane and caused far more harm than good.
Here are 16 such insane medical practices that doctors actually thought were good for you:
16. Hemorrhoids were traditionally treated in a number of unscientific ways, most unappealingly through the insertion of a red hot poker up the bottom
Hemorrhoids, also known as piles, are natural cushions that form as part of the human anal canal with the purpose of easing and maintaining rectal command; although innately benign, via a number of factors, including pregnancy, diarrhea, and constipation, hemorrhoids can become inflamed to cause considerable pain to the afflicted. First mentioned in 1700 BCE by the ancient Egyptians, the condition has endured across the centuries, through ancient Greece and Rome, Medieval Europe, to the modern day, with an estimated 50-66% of all adults destined to suffer from inflamed hemorrhoids at some point during their lives.
Most infamously, during the Middle Ages hemorrhoids were associated with Saint Fiacre – the Catholic patron saint of gardeners – who himself developed the condition during the 7th century. Believed to be a result of inadequate veneration of the canonized priest, the suggested medical treatment involved heating “seven or eight small pieces of iron” and inserting said scorching metals into the rectum until the hemorrhoids fell off “like a piece of burnt hide”. Incredibly, this practice continued as late as 1882, with William Allingham’s Fistula, Hemorrhoids, Painful Ulcer, Stricture, Prolapsus, And Other Diseases Of The Rectum recommending this absurd and archaic approach as the preferred mode of treating inflamed hemorrhoids; even more bizarrely considering his personal endorsement, Allingham notes that the results tended to be unsuccessful, ranging from “great pain” and “retarded recovery” to potentially fatal “abscesses”.
15. Early cosmetic surgeries were immensely dangerous for the patient, in particular, those who underwent paraffin wax injections for bodily enhancements and alterations
Beginning with the earliest of known surgeries, the “Edwin Smith Papyrus” from Ancient Egypt, dated to 3000-2500 BCE, records the reconstructive repair of a broken nose. These procedures reached India by 800 BCE and Rome by the 1st century BCE, whereupon the field of plastic surgery was gradually developed over the next two thousand years; the first recorded such surgeries took place in 16th century Europe, with so-called “barber-surgeons” known in Tudor England for treating damaged or disfigured faces with varying degrees of success. Of particular note, Heinrich von Pfloseudnt is credited with the creation of a process for grafting skin from the back of the arm to create a new nose in the 15th century; deserving of special praise for his meritorious restraint, atypically for contemporaneous medicine Pfloseudnt designated the procedure as too risky given available tools to perform on a human subject.
With the refinement of anesthesia during the 19th-century plastic surgeries increased in both frequency and appeal, advertised in popular magazines as treatments for “humped, depressed, or ill-shaped noses” and “the finger marks of Time”; perhaps most notorious of these cosmetic introductions was an early form of artificial enhancements. Achieved through the use of paraffin wax, with the stated purposes of concealing wrinkles, breast augmentation, or nose alterations, this hot liquid wax was injected into the patient and then “molded by the operator into the desired shape” whilst still warm; however, upon hardening the wax habitually grew into intensely painful deposits and could migrate through the body to other areas causing severe disfigurement or even fatally cancerous blockages.
14. Female hysteria was treated in a number of imaginative ways, including electrical sex belts and vaginal massages
Female hysteria was a genuinely believed medical condition that was commonly ascribed to women exhibiting symptoms of faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, irritability, or “a tendency to cause trouble”. Stemming once more from Ancient Egypt, the first descriptions of female hysteria date to 1900 BCE and were upheld throughout the early medicines of the Greco-Roman period; Plato’s Timaeus identifies the source as a women’s uterus, described as a living creature capable of “blocking passages, obstructing breathing, and causing disease”, whilst later scholars theorized hysteria was caused by male semen residue left in the vaginal tract after intercourse and, for a brief period during the 17th century, demonic possession. George Beard, a 19th-century physician, compiled a list of more than 75 pages of possible symptoms in an effort to discredit the spurious condition, expressing frustration that almost any ailment could be interpreted as evidence and used to incarcerate a woman in an asylum. Eventually, in 1952 the American Psychiatric Association terminated formal recognition of the so-called disease, with alternative legitimate disorders identified in place of the inane condition including borderline personality disorder, conversion disorder, anxiety attacks, and schizophrenia.
Among the many treatment options recommended to supposed sufferers of female hysteria, which also included the pumping of water into the vagina, perhaps the strangest was the alleged widespread use of professionally-applied vaginal massages. According to historian Rachel Maines, from the classical era until the early 20th century doctors frequently treated cases of female hysteria by masturbating said patients to “hysterical paroxysm”, more accurately termed orgasm; the administering of vaginal massages to treat hysteria remains a matter of historical debate, with some scholars contending the practice was not as widespread as Maines’s research suggests.
13. Horoscopes were used as part of medical astrology to determine the appropriate treatment of patients during the Medieval era
Medical astrology, known historically as iatromathematics, was a strand of medicine which associated a connection between certain parts of the body and the positions of celestial bodies; believing that these astrological phenomena and their placement in the solar system influenced the health and condition of the human body on Earth, many physicians adapted their treatment plans based on how they interpreted these other-worldly signs.
The twelve signs of the Zodiac, through unscientific and bizarre means, were calculated to govern specific parts of the body – for instance, the head was affected most by Aries, and the toe by Pisces – and accordingly during the ascendance of these cycles such conditions were superstitiously presumed to intensify. Accordingly, during the medieval era a patient would commonly be less examined physically than required to provide astrological information to be compared against a horoscope as a mode of diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis; in fact, during the 1500s many physicians of medieval Europe were legally mandated to examine a patient’s horoscope prior to treatment.
12. Virgin cleansing was, and remains in some parts of the modern world, a medical treatment to cure an individual of serious infectious diseases
The virgin cleansing myth, or virgin cure myth, is a historic belief that engaging in sexual intercourse with a virgin possesses the spiritual power to heal a person of serious infectious diseases. First reported in 16th-century Europe, multiple surviving accounts detail the efforts of prominent individuals to rid themselves of so-called “social diseases” by engaging in sexual activities with presumed virgins; the precise origin of this medical treatment is unknown, but it has been speculated that the practice stems from the Christian mythical traditions of virgin-martyrs: legendary figures whose purity protected them in battle against demonic forces.
Expanding in the popular imagination in 19th century Victorian England – home to many notoriously poor medical beliefs – as a cure of syphilis, gonorrhea, and other sexually transmitted diseases, the British Empire subsequently gifted this dangerous falsehood to the rest of the world via its colonial possessions. Disgustingly this practice has allegedly continued into the 21st century, notably in South Africa which experienced a dramatic increase in child sexual assault in 2002 in the aftermath of an HIV/AIDS epidemic, and social anthropologists continue to record countless instances of rape in modern Africa in the belief that the perpetrator will be cured of their ailments; surveys by academic institutions on the African continent habitually reveal a continued acceptance in this barbaric and unscientific practice, with 18% of South African laborers found at the turn of the millennium to ascribe to the false theory and as many as 32% of participants in a study from 1999.
11. Several deceased animals were bizarrely and incorrectly used in the treatments of medical conditions, notably shark cartilage for cancer and whale carcasses for arthritis
A prominent feature of this medical insanity was, and, in fact, remains the use of shark cartilage to treat human cancers. Building on mythical beliefs concerning the alleged healing powers of sharks, particularly the debunked idea that the species does not develop cancerous tissue – in fact, sharks suffer from 42 known varieties of cancer – in the 1950s Dr. John Prudden, of the prominent and respected Harvard University, pushed the uncorroborated theory that the consumption of ground shark cartilage in pill form could serve as a viable alternative to orthodox cancer treatments. Not only ineffectual, with the world-leading Mayo Clinic in 2005 definitively stating after extensive testing that it “was unable to demonstrate any suggestion of efficacy for this shark cartilage product in patients with advanced cancer”, this incorrect assumption by Dr. Prudden has resulted in a significant decline in wild shark populations due to their mass hunting for alternative medical purposes, a practice which regrettably continues to this day.
Equally bizarre, in the late-19th century the popular belief emerged that sitting inside the carcass of a whale would cure the pains of rheumatism. Stemming, incredibly, from the claims of a drunken Australian in Eden in 1896, who had years prior fallen into a whale’s carcass and woken up some hours later free of his usual discomforts and pains, the story was immediately published without scientific inquiry by newspapers worldwide under the headline of “a new cure for rheumatism”. Claiming that “a gentleman of convivial habits but grievously afflicted with rheumatism” had been instantly cured by such methods, the practice subsequently spread and a public perception begun that a several hour stay inside a deceased whale carcass would bring 12 months of pain relief from the arthritic condition. Although it has been questioned just how widespread this incredibly moronic practice truly was, it was clearly not insubstantial as the Sydney Morning Herald described such treatment occurring in a normal fashion, detailing that “the whalers dig a sort of narrow grave in the body and in this the patient lies for two hours, as in a Turkish bath, the decomposing blubber of the whale closing round his body, and acting as a huge poultice”.
10. Tapeworms were allegedly marketed during the early 20th century as a dietary aid for easy weight loss
Tapeworms, or Cestoda, are a class of parasitic worms whose bodies are comprised of small dischargeable units, known as proglottids, which serve as bags containing dozens of tiny eggs to be shed in an effort to infect other nearby organisms; measuring up to and exceeding 100 feet in length, the size of a tapeworm is commonly dependent on that of its host. Capable of living for years in an otherwise healthy host, continuing to reproduce throughout this time and discharging offspring in feces, tapeworms typically live in the digestive tracts of vertebrates; humans are most susceptible to infection through the consumption of undercooked meat and poor hygienic conditions.
Although unproven, with some historians claiming the use of tapeworms in this fashion to be merely a hoax or a satirical parody based off of the absurdist and widespread use of diet pills in the 1950s and 1960s, it has been widely suggested and corroborated that during the early 20th century the “tapeworm diet” was medically proposed and supported as a means of achieving weight loss. Advertisements surviving from this time detail the sale of tapeworm eggs to the public under the moniker of slimming tablets; one particular advert, depicted above, claims “no ill effects” and that “fat: the enemy” could be “banished” with the use of “sanitized tapeworms”.
9. The enema is a valuable medical tool but was incredulously used historically to rectally inject boar’s bile to cure constipation or blow smoke to reverse the effects of drowning
The enema, or clyster, is a medical syringe designed for the purpose of injecting fluid into the lower bowel via the rectum; most commonly used in modern medicine to clean a bowel prior to an examination, enemas are also used today in extremis as a mode of re-hydration or medicinal stimulation. However, diverting from the legitimate medicinal uses of the enema, by the Medieval period the device was used increasingly inanely and for the most peculiar of reasons. Employing a clyster-style syringe with a pump-action bulb constructed from the bladder of a pig, a concoction of a variety of supposed curatives, most popularly boar’s bile but also including other favorites such as honey, soap, or baking soda, would be rectally injected into the patient to cure an increasingly expanding list of ailments, ranging from constipation to the common cold; this explosion of use was widely documented by contemporaneous satirists, who mocked 16th century physicians claiming that their prescription for anything was “clyster, bleed purge or purge, bleed, clyster”. King Louis XIV of France reportedly believed in the medicinal properties of the enema so greatly that he is recorded as enjoying over 2,000 during his reign, some allegedly administered whilst he sat upon his throne.
Even more bizarrely, by the 18th century “tobacco-smoke enemas” were in use as a means of resuscitating drowned persons, a technique semi-adapted from North American indigenous use of tobacco as a stimulative tool against cold or drowsiness. By the 19th century, belief in the medical effectiveness of literally blowing smoke up people’s backsides had become so entrenched within English society that ready-to-use kits were provided by The Royal Humane Society of London and placed at regular intervals along the banks of the Thames River in a manner akin to the modern availability of defibrillators.
8. Patent medicines were endemic during the 19th century, with popular favorites such as Vin Mariani: a concotion of cocaine and wine
Vin Mariani, or Mariani wine, was one of the many patent medicines marketed during the mid-late 19th century allegedly capable of offering a curative to all manner of everyday ailments and conditions. Created in 1863 by Angelo Mariani, the precise recipe for the tonic remains unknown as Mariani failed to pass down the specifics behind the production of his cocawine; however, dubiously prominent among the known active ingredients was a mixture of cocaine – approximately 7.2 mg per ounce – and ordinary Bordeaux wine. The drink would later inspire John Pemberton’s “French Wine Coca”, which included the African kola nut as a source of caffeine stimulation; first sold in 1885 and which, following Georgian prohibition legislation the following year, would become Coca-Cola in 1886 with the replacement of alcohol with coca leaves.
Claiming the tonic medicine was capable of restoring health, energy, appetite, and vitality – suitable for “overworked men, delicate women, and sickly children” – the cocawine was particularly marketed towards athletes and artists, receiving significant endorsements from major contemporary figures; in addition to the alleged public support of over 8,000 doctors, Vin Mariani was supported by Pope Leo XIII, who actually appeared on a poster advertisement and awarded Mariani a medal at the Vatican for his dangerous creation, Thomas Edison, who used the drink as a stimulant, American President Ulysses S. Grant in his later life, and written testimonials survive from Emile Zola, Henri Rochefort, and Charles Gounod.
7. Radium was used in the early 20th century as part of cancer treatments, despite containing lethal levels of radioactivity
Radium, as the name suggests, is a highly radioactive metal, first discovered in 1898 by legendary French chemists Marie and Pierre Curie; Marie would famously die as a result of radiation poisoning caused due to her close interaction with the lethal chemical. In spite of these self-evident harmful properties, almost as soon as radium was discovered it begun being incorporated into products, first to induce a novelty fluorescent flow and subsequently for medicinal use.
Claimed, as with many discoveries during this time, to be a virtual panacea, with one advertisement promoting the health benefits of drinking radioactive water, radium, specifically radium bromide, was prominently used in early cancer treatments. As part of these medical procedures, notably by Howard Atwood Kelly, a founding physician of Johns Hopkins Hospital, dangerous quantities of radium contained in capsule form were surgically sewn into affected areas in a misguided attempt to treat cancers and tumors at the source. The effects of these surgeries were almost uniformly negative, with patients suffering from severe cases of anemia, the development of additional cancers, and even genetic mutations; among Kelly’s unfortunate patients, many of whom were killed as a direct result of their unethical exposure to radium, was his own aunt who died in 1904 shortly after undergoing surgery.
6. Bloodletting – the medical practice of deliberately draining blood – was commonly employed by doctors in the belief that disease was the result of an imbalance of the four humors
Bloodletting is the deliberate release of blood from a patient in an effort by a physician to treat a medical condition and is believed to be the most common practice performed by surgeons throughout history; beginning at the earliest emergence of medicine, bloodletting maintained this prominence until the 19th century over 2,000 years later. Performed for the purpose of balancing the humors, believed from the time of Hippocrates to have been four bodily fluids which influenced the health of an individual – blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm – an imbalance of these fluids was generally thought to serve as the primary cause of disease and disability; Hippocrates proposed the notion that female menstruation was a product of natural bodily efforts to “purge women of bad humors”, with Galen furthering such thought into active balancing through medical bloodletting.
Consequently, bloodletting was used to treat almost any and every disease or medical condition of the day and was achieved either through the stereotypical, but nonetheless historically accurate use of leeches or via cutting; interestingly, prior to the amputation of a limb it was medical belief that the amount of blood equal to that circulating in said limb should be drained to prevent an over-saturation of blood in the rest of the body. By the medieval period the practice had become fully entrenched within medical opinion, both European and Islamic, with “bleeding sites” identified for the most suitable penetrative regions of the body and religious guidance was provided recommending the most appropriate days to attempt bloodletting, namely saints days and religious festivals; in fact, George Washington, after contracting his ultimately fatal throat infection in 1799, was bled in a healing attempt, with the estimated 3.75 liters of blood removed from the former president across a ten-hour period likely hastening his death considerably, if not causing it.
5. Electroconvulsive therapy was used throughout the mid-20th century as a treatment for mental disorders through the often forced electrocution of patients
Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, also known as electroshock therapy or “shock treatment”) is a treatment of psychiatric disorders wherein seizures are forcibly induced in a patient by the introduction of electricity. The use of seizures in this manner was considered as far back as the 16th century and the invention of electricity was merely utilized as an easier and supposedly safe means to achieve this desired result; as early as 1755 this medical practice was employed in a rudimentary form, with Benjamin Franklin recording the allegedly successful curing of “a woman of hysterical fits” via an electrostatic machine. Introduced in its modern form in 1934 by Hungarian neuropsychiatrist Ladislas Meduna, believing the medical use of convulsive therapy was capable of curing mental disorders ranging from schizophrenia to epilepsy, Italian Ugo Cerletti adapted this work after observing the anesthetizing effects of electricity in pigs prior to slaughter; nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work, by 1940 the practice of using ECT to treat mental disorders had spread into common usage worldwide.
Although serving legitimate medical purposes still today, albeit only used in situations of informed consent and typically in instances of last resort for advanced and medication-resistant cases of severe catatonia or manic depression, ECT served to torment and abuse the mentally ill throughout the middle of the 20th century. Often forcibly applied to patients, including asylum inmates, ECT is known to have caused an abundance of complications and negative side-effects; among these are retrograde amnesia in almost all patients, affecting both short and long-term memory permanently, in addition to hypoxia or anoxia as well as potentially inducing harmful accelerations of other underlying medical disorders.
4. Liquid mercury was believed by ancient medicine to possess the powers of rejuvenation, but actually often just killed those consuming or inhaling the toxic substance
Mercury, also known colloquially as quicksilver, is a naturally occurring metallic element that atypically for a metal takes liquid form at room temperature. Dating the discovery to at least 1500 BCE, with mercury identified in Egyptian tombs, the substance has been used by almost every culture at some point throughout history ranging from Far-East Asia to the Americas; among its many uses, mercury was until recently used in thermometers and is still used today in some sphygmomanometers and electrical circuitry. Despite the intense toxicity of mercury, capable of absorption through the human skin and lethal in cases of excessive or prolonged exposure, it was nonetheless used as part of longstanding medical treatments; it should be noted that limited quantities of mercury are still used in certain medical procedures, particularly in the United States and the developing world, typically as preservatives in vaccines and as part of topical antiseptics.
Historically, ancient Chinese medicine believed that the consumption of mercury had the power to prolong life, heal injuries, and maintain vitality; in fact, the consumption of mercury does almost precisely the converse. Most famously, the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang Di, is believed to have died after drinking a concoction made from mercury and powdered jade which resulted in liver failure and severe mercury poisoning precipitating a complete loss of brain function; equally stupidly, Khumarawayh ibn Ahmad ibn Tulun, the second Tulunid ruler of Egypt (r. 884-896 CE), allegedly slept atop a basin filled with mercury to benefit from the presumed rejuvenative powers of the toxic substance.
3. Trepanning, wherein a hole was drilled into the human skull, was a common practice throughout the history of medicine to incorrectly treat a host of problems
Trepanning, also known as trepanation, is a surgical technique whereby a hole is drilled into the human skull, either to release built up blood pressure or expose brain tissue for operation. Believed to be the world’s oldest confirmed surgical procedure, with the earliest known examples dated to 6500 BCE in prehistoric France, more than 1,500 Neolithic skulls, representing approximately 10% of all recovered skulls from this period, depict evidence of early trepanation, strongly suggesting the widespread early use of the medical method.
Although continuing to serve a legitimate purpose in modern medicine, notably as part of corneal transplant surgery or to relieve the pressures of a subdural hematoma, the historic use of trepanning was shockingly dangerous and misguided. During the ancient era trepanning was predominantly used to treat those considered as behaving abnormally, now recognized as sufferers of epilepsy, migraines, seizures, or mental disorders, with a burr hole created in a person’s skull with the goal of releasing evil spirits trapped within responsible for said symptoms; it is likely the practice was also employed as a form of emergency surgery after severe head wounds, a common occurrence due to the prevalence of blunt stone weaponry at the time. Similarly, trepanning is believed to have been employed by pre-Columbian Mesoamericans but at a significantly decreased rate to that of Europe; it should be noted, however, that the archaeological record in the region is complicated by the concurrent practice of skull modification performed by early Mesoamericans, making the clear identification of skull surgeries difficult.
2. Human and animal feces were celebrated for their healing properties by early doctors, believed, wrongly, to be capable of curing rather than causing illness.
Among the most disgusting, and fortunately outdated, medical treatments used throughout history, feces were recurrently used across the ancient world in the spurious belief that it possessed powerful curative properties. In Ancient Egypt, “donkey, dog, gazelle and fly dung were all celebrated for their healing properties and their ability to ward off bad spirits”, whilst crocodile dung is also believed to have been used as a form of early contraception; naturally, these uses of feces were rarely more effective than they were immensely harmful, with feces incredibly infectious and patients submitted to fecal medicine, unsurprisingly, typically developed fatal cases of tetanus.
This horrendous medical belief miraculously persisted and by the 17th century in Ireland “warm hog’s dung” was still used to treat nosebleeds, whilst famed chemist Robert Boyle allegedly treated cataracts by blowing dried and powdered human feces into the affected eye; a hundred years later Ireland was still used poop in medicine, with “the dung of an infant pulverized” a known “treatment” for epilepsy. Today, feces is, in fact, used as part of a modern medical procedure, but one founded upon real scientific knowledge: the fecal transplant, in which a donor’s leavings are inserted into a patient to introduced “good” gut bacteria in an individual unable to produce it themselves as a result of an autoimmune disease such as Crohn’s or IBS.
1. Lobotomization robbed an individual of their personality, commonly resulted in crippling and permanent brain damage, and was often performed without the consent of the patient
A lobotomy, or leucotomy, is an irreversibly and invasive neurosurgical surgery involving the severing of connections to the prefrontal cortex of the human brain. Designed to decrease the symptoms of mental disorders by “reducing the complexity of psychic life”, the true horrific cost of the lobotomy was an individual’s capacity for personality, self-awareness, or spontaneity, described, supposedly positively, by Walter Freeman as “surgically induced childhood” resulting in an “infantile personality”; at best, the operation rendered a person severely brain-damaged, with a restricted intellectual and emotional understanding for the rest of their lives, whilst many others were permanently hospitalized and some committed suicide or died as a direct consequence of the procedure.
Developed by Portuguese neurologist AntÃ³nio Egas Moniz, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1949 for his “discovery of the therapeutic value of leucotomy in certain psychoses”, the first such operation took place in Lisbon in 1935 on mentally ill patients without their knowledge or consent; the technique was gradually refined to avoid the need for formal surgery with the creation of the transorbital lobotomy, enabling the procedure to be carried out via the eye socket. Targeted at long-term suffers of mental illness, especially women, in the United States alone an estimated 40,000 people were forcibly lobotomized, with a further 17,000 such procedures in England, of which the overwhelming majority were non-consenting women; among these, Rosemary Kennedy, sister of JFK, was one of the first Americans to unwillingly undergo the prefrontal lobotomy at the age of 23, resulting in her permanent institutionalization due to crippling brain damage until her death in 2005.
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