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Among the most disgusting, and fortunately outdated, medical treatments used throughout history, feces were recurrently used across the ancient world in the spurious belief that it possessed powerful curative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 António 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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