People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History

Khalid Elhassan - March 31, 2020 much of history, medical knowledge about what caused illness and how to cure it was quite limited. People – including many physicians – often turned to remedies that made sense to them at the time, but that we now know were useless, counterproductive, and when seen through modern eyes, outright bizarre. Following are forty fascinating things about weird health beliefs and cures from history.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Black Death victims. Herbology

40. Crazy Cures Proliferated During The Black Death

The Black Death killed about a third of Europe’s population in the mid-fourteenth century. Victims usually died within a few days, which were spent suffering from horrific symptoms like gruesome boils, bloody lungs, severe vomiting, and high fevers that sent the infected into delirium.

Between the rapid spread, scary symptoms, and high mortality rates, people were understandably driven to panic. Combine that with the poor state of medical knowledge, and it is unsurprising that many latched on to crazy cures that did not work, and only served to increase the victims’ suffering.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Sewer. Sewer History

39. Living in Sewers

Most plague cures were based on superstition, ignorance, and dubious logic of the kind that put two and two together to come up with nine. An example is the line of reasoning that took people from figuring that the plague – or some variants thereof – was airborne, and the solution: head to the sewers.

People began visiting, and sometimes even living in, stinky sewers. It was thought that the sewers’ horrible stench would discourage the clean but disease-ridden air from coming near them. Not only did it not work, it also made those visiting and living in the sewers susceptible to other illnesses caused by their vile surroundings.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Black treacle. Spruce Eats

38. Slurping Down Rotten Treacle

One of the more popular plague remedies was treacle – an uncrystallized syrupy byproduct made during the refinement of sugar. In of itself, treacle, while lacking any healing properties, was relatively harmless. However, seeing as how we are talking about a medieval plague cure, it is unsurprising that there was a medieval wacky twist to it.

The Black Death treacle remedy twist was that the syrup had to be rotten. As in it had to be aged at least ten years to be considered effective. Operating on the dubious logic of “if it tastes horrible it must be good“, physicians swore by the healing properties of rotten treacle. The old, stinky, and sticky syrup was believed to not only ward off the plague in the first place, but to also cure those unfortunate enough to have come down with the illness.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Medieval Flemish dyers, like other dyers, used urine to develop and fix their product. Pintrest

37. Washing Oneself With Urine

Since ancient times, urine was collected for a variety of uses, such as whitening cloth, developing and fixing dyes, and tanning leather. During the Black Death, many came to believe that urine had healing properties. So they soaked themselves in the stuff.

Plague victims were bathed in urine several times a day, in the belief that doing so would either cure them, or at least alleviate the symptoms. Of course, it did not do such thing – it just caused them to spend their final hours badly stinking. However, urine did not cause them to stink anywhere near as bad as the next cure.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
A medieval doctor bleeding a patient. Fine Art America

36. Smearing Oneself With Poop

The Black Death often caused pus-filled swellings, known as buboes, to erupt all over the skin. One treatment called for lancing open the buboes to allow the disease to leave the body. So far, so not so bad. Then a special potion was to be applied to the lanced buboes. A potion in which poo featured prominently.

The cuts made in the plague victims’ bodies were slathered with a concoction of tree resin, white lily roots, and human excrement. The stinking paste was pushed and packed firmly into the open wounds, then tightly wrapped to keep the nauseating mixture inside.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
A contemporary drawing of Jews being burned alive during the Black Death. NPR

35. Killing Jews

Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews were often persecuted by Christians, who accused them of everything from killing Jesus to murdering Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals. When the Black Death erupted, it did not take long for many Christians to pin the blame on Jews, who were accused of deliberately poisoning wells to cause the plague. Some Jews were tortured into confessing that they had poisoned the wells. The belief in Jewish culpability was further buttressed by the observation that the plague did not strike Jews as often as it did Christians – a function of Jews practicing better hygiene.

The result was that thousands of Jews were rounded up and massacred throughout Europe in a bid to halt the disease’s spread. Some were summarily executed, others were crammed into their homes or synagogues which were then set alight, and others were murdered in a variety of fiendishly cruel ways.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
A procession of flagellants in the Netherlands, circa 1350. History Today

34. Flog Away the Plague

The fact that none of the preceding cures worked reinforced the belief – never far away from medieval minds – that their misfortunes were the result of divine displeasure. God was mad at mankind for its myriad sins, so he sent the plague as punishment. Adding two and two together and coming up with seventy-five, many reasoned that God might stop punishing them if they went ahead and punished themselves. So they started flogging themselves.

Flagellants – people who mortified their flesh with whips – had been around since at least the 1200s. However, the practice peaked during the Black Death, when flagellant groups arose spontaneously throughout Europe. Religious zealots paraded around, seeking atonement for their sins by vigorously whipping themselves in public displays of penance.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Medieval flagellants. Wikimedia

33. Rise and Fall of the Flagellants

Practices like trying to achieve redemption through flagellation were most popular in times of crisis, so it is unsurprising that flagellant numbers soared during the Black Death. The Church condemned the practice, but the movement spread like wildfire throughout Europe. Clad in white robes, large groups of flagellants – sometimes numbering in the thousands – roamed the countryside, dragging crosses while flogging themselves and each other into a religious frenzy.

In one well-recorded episode, hundreds of flagellants arrived in London from Flanders. They paraded twice a day, stripped to the waist, and flogged themselves bloody with three-tailed scourges, some of them knotted and with nails affixed to them. Needless to say, flagellation proved as ineffective as all the other remedies for warding off the plague. Eventually, the practice proved itself a temporary fad, and enthusiasm for flagellation waned as suddenly as it had arisen.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
‘Thumbs Down’, by Jean Leon Gerome, 1872. Thing Link

32. Gladiator Bodily Fluids

The good people of ancient Rome had what you might call mixed feelings about gladiators. On the one hand, gladiators were despised as slaves, trained under extremely brutal conditions, marginalized, and generally segregated from free Romans. On the other hand, gladiators, especially the most successful ones, were admired and celebrated as if they were a cross between modern rock stars and star athletes.

The gladiators’ constant training turned them into impressive physical specimens, well proportioned, with rippling muscles glistening in the arena before spectators. Understandably, that made gladiators the objects of sexual fantasies for many Roman women, and for quite a few Roman men, for that matter. If the gladiator sexual fantasy could not be gratified directly – and huge, although not insurmountable, social barriers stood in the way – it might be gratified at a remove. Gladiator bodily fluids, especially their sweat, were highly sought-after commodities in Ancient Rome. Rich women, in particular, were willing to pay a hefty price for sweat and dirt from the bodies of famous gladiators.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
A bronze strigil. Metropolitan Museum of Art

31. Blood, Sweat – and If You Can Get Them, Probably, Tears

The Romans used a curved metal blade, called a strigil, to remove dirt, perspiration, and oils from the skin before bathing. That is how they scraped and scrape sweat and dirt from gladiators’ skins. It would then be collected in vials, which were offered for sale outside the gladiatorial games. The buyers would often apply the gladiators’ sweat and grime directly to their faces, as a type of facial cream. Others might mix it with cosmetics and perfumes – which in Ancient Rome were usually the preserve of women of status.

Gladiator blood was also highly sought after. Many women applied the blood of their favorite gladiators to coat their jewelry, combs, wigs, and other accouterments, or mixed it with their cosmetics. Gladiators were seen as particularly virile, which led to the somewhat ghoulish and macabre practice of using gladiator blood (and sometimes sweat) as an aphrodisiac. The more successful and famous a gladiator, the more potent an aphrodisiac his blood or sweet were believed to be. It could be drunk pure, but more often, was mixed with wine and ingested that way.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Gladiators. Encyclopedia Britannica

30. The Healing Properties of Gladiator Blood

Gladiator blood’s usefulness was not limited to cosmetics and aphrodisiacs. It was also believed to have healing properties, particularly in treating epilepsy. As Pliny the Elder described it:

Epileptic patients are in the habit of drinking the blood even of gladiators, draughts filled with life as it were; a thing that, when we see it done by the wild beasts in the same arena, inspires us with horror at the spectacle! And yet these persons consider it a most effective cure for their disease, to drink he warm, breathing, blood from man himself, and, as they apply their mouth to the wound, to draw forth his very life; and this, though it is regarded as an act of impiety to apply the human lips to the wound even of a wild beast!”

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
A tobacco smoke enema. Interesly

29. The Healing Properties of Tobacco

Today, the harmful effects of tobacco are well known and understood in most of the world. However, there was a time when not only were tobacco’s ills unknown, but tobacco was actually considered healthy and good for you. Centuries ago, tobacco was lauded as a cure for many ailments, not only by quacks and charlatans, but also by respected members of the mainstream medical establishment.

Tobacco was introduced to Europe by the Spanish, circa 1528. From early on, it was described as a “sacred herb” because of its supposed medicinal properties, as claimed by various Native Americans. Before long, European medical practitioners were treating the newly introduced plant as a miracle cure for sundry ailments, from headaches and colds to cancer.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Heraclitus. Wellcome Library, London

28. Blowing Smoke Up the… Rear End

Nowadays, when somebody scoffs at another that “you’re just blowing smoke up my a**“, it is a figure of speech, intended to convey that the smoke blower is insincerely complementing the scoffer, telling him what he thinks he wants to hear. However, centuries ago, blowing smoke up one’s fanny was meant literally. It described a medical procedure in which a tube or rubber hose was inserted in a person’s rectum, up which tobacco smoke would be blown.

In the 1700s, doctors routinely used tobacco smoke enemas, in the mistaken belief that they had healing properties. Blowing smoke up the behind was thought to be particularly useful in reviving drowning victims. The nicotine in the tobacco was thought to make the heart beat faster, thus stimulating respiration, while smoke from the burning tobacco was thought to warm the drowning victim from the inside. It made intuitive sense: the drowned person was full of water, so blowing air, in the form of tobacco smoke which was full of healing properties, would both expel the water and heal the victim.

Also Read: Absurd Medical History Moments in History.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Medical kit, including bellows, for blowing smoke up a patient’s rear end. BC Medical Journal

27. A… Slight Hiccup With Blowing Smoke Up One’s Bum

One hiccup with trying to save drowning victims by blowing smoke up their behinds was that the water was in the drowned person’s lungs, which are not connected to his or her lower digestive tract. Thus, blowing air up the drowning victims’ butts and into their bowels would do little to expel water from their lungs. Although some doctors preferred sticking the tube directly into the lungs through the mouth or nose, most preferred to shove it up the patient’s butt, instead.

Although medically useless, belief in the efficacy of tobacco smoke enemas in reviving drowning victims, or even those presumed dead, was widespread. So widespread, that medical kits for blowing smoke up the butt were found at routine intervals along major waterways, such as the River Thames. There they waited, like modern defibrillators, ready for use to revive the drowned and bring the (presumed) dead back to life.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Bellows and hose for blowing smoke up a patients bottom. Imgur

26. Tobacco: The Universal Cure All

Eventually, blowing smoke up the rear came to be used not only in attempts at reviving the drowned, but to also to treat colds, headaches, hernias, abdominal cramps, and even heart attack. Tobacco smoke enemas were also used on typhoid fever victims, and those dying of cholera.

While the smoke-up-the-butt treatment was useless for the patient, it could be quite dangerous for the medical practitioner. Especially if he was blowing the smoke with his mouth instead of using a bellows. Should the doctor inhale instead of exhale, or if gases in the patient’s bowels escaped (i.e.; if the patient farted) fecal particles could get blown back into the doctor’s mouth or inhaled into his lungs. Such a mishap, particularly when treating a cholera patient, could prove fatal for the doctor.


People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
An early passenger train. Lionel Trains

25. High Train Speeds Risked Blowing Women’s Uteruses Out Their Bodies

Back when steam locomotive passenger trains first entered service in the nineteenth century, there were widespread fears that their speed would prove lethal to passengers. New locomotives, such as the pioneering Rocket, built by Robert Stephenson in 1829, were capable of maximum speeds of 28 m.p.h. Quite slow, by today’s standards, but until 1829, it is unlikely that any humans had ever experienced such speeds.

The perceived risk of such unprecedented velocities was not limited to the consequences of a crash or derailment. Naysayers – including many doctors – theorized that human physiology was simply not adapted to and capable of withstanding travel at speeds faster than those of a galloping horse. Anticipating the concerns about G forces in the era of powered flight, train alarmists reasoned that passengers’ internal organs would get compressed against their backs, with potentially lethal results. Women were thought to be especially at risk, as it was feared that high train speeds would blow their uteruses out their bodies.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
An illustration from the May 11th, 1889, Police News, depicting a struggle with a madman in a train car. Atlas Obscura

24. Rattling Brains Into Insanity

The paranoia about train speeds killing people with G forces eventually receded. Railways and trains proliferated, with no reported fatalities from people getting their hearts or lungs flattened against their backs, or of women having their uteruses fly out of their bodies. However, the early fears were replaced by another bizarre fear, this one of a danger to the mind instead of the body. By the 1850s, Victorians worried that the steadily increasing train speeds, combined with the rattle and jarring motions within railway cars, were causing injuries to passengers’ brains, and driving people insane.

Sensationalist media did their part to whip up the frenzy. An illustrative example occurred in 1865, during a train journey from Carnforth to Liverpool in England. An armed passenger went crazy and started attacking windows to get at passengers in other compartments. When the train slowed down and stopped at its next station, the lunatic calmed down. When the train got underway again, he went nuts, only to calm down once more when the train stopped at the next station. The pattern of going wild while the train was in motion, then calming down when it slowed down and stopped, was repeated until the train reached Liverpool.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Depiction of a 1907 struggle with a lunatic on a train, illustrating a contemporary belief that train rides could cause insanity. Atlas Obscura

23. Train Travel Causes Insanity?

Newspapers and mental health professionals of the day linked the Liverpool train lunatic’s bouts of madness to train travel. However, instead of reasoning that he was a mentally disturbed individual, for whom train travel was a trigger, they concluded that train travel was the cause of his mental illness.

The belief persisted, well into the 20th century, that something about the speed or motion of trains drove people mad. The pattern of flawed analysis, confusing causation with correlation, kept repeating itself. Somebody would act crazy or in a socially unacceptable way in a moving train, and the train’s speed or motion would be blamed for causing the craziness.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Treating female hysteria. Pintrest

22. Curing “Female Hysteria”

The cliché “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” is frequently used as a shortcut for expressing the notion that men and women are incomprehensible to one another. However, if there was any period in history when reality actually matched the cliché, it was probably during the Victorian Era. Back then, people – particularly men – understood very little about female sexuality.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, women who exhibited a variety of symptoms such as depression, fatigue anxiety, or loss of sexual appetite were diagnosed with “female hysteria”. The prescribed medical treatment was a pelvic massage to bring about a “female paroxysm”. That was Victorian speak for “orgasm”. A doctor would insert his fingers inside a patient’s vagina, and manually massage her vulva and clitoral region until she had an orgasm, which would supposedly cure whatever was ailing her.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Fingering away the hysteria. Pintrest

21. The Long History of Fingering Females to Rid Them of “Hysteria”

Throughout much of recorded history, female sexuality was so little understood that women’s orgasms were viewed as medical oddities. As such, they were the province of professional physicians who induced them in order to calm down “hysterical” women.

Thus, to be fair to Victorians, it should be noted that they did not invent such treatments to combat “female hysteria”. That diagnosis dates all the way back to Hippocrates, circa 450 BC, and it persisted throughout the Middle Ages. However, the late Victorians can be credited with picking it up and running away with it.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
A steam-powered vibrator. 9Gag

20. Coal Fueled Steam Vibrators

The late nineteenth century’s medical community believed that there was a female hysteria epidemic. Some leading physicians estimated that up to three out of every four American women suffered from the malady. However, the cure of inducing “female paroxysm” in patients was a time-consuming task. It was difficult to teach and learn, doctors complained that it often took an hour or more, and many suffered wrist fatigue – carpal tunnel syndrome, as we would call it today. In a nutshell, doctors were getting sore wrists from fingering female patients to orgasm.

So physicians began turning to mechanical vibrators. The first steam-powered vibrator, fueled by packing coal into a furnace, was invented in 1869. However, such vibrators were bulky and cumbersome contraptions, some as big as a dining room table. They took up too much space in doctors’ offices, and were too cumbersome to tote around in a medical kit back for house visits.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
An advertisement for an early electric massager. All That Is Interesting

19. Inventing the Modern Vibrator

The problem of too-cumbersome vibrators was finally solved by Hamilton Beach, the makers of kitchen appliances such as coffee makers, toasters, and blenders. In 1902, they marketed the “Try New Life”, the world’s first commercially available vibrator. Because of the conventional mores of the day, the devices could not be advertised for what they actually were. Instead, they were marketed as “electrical massagers” to ease sore and aching muscles.

Some people probably did buy them in order to ease sore and aching muscles. However, it was very much a wink-wink-nudge-nudge situation. The devices were marketed to women, the overwhelming majority of purchasers were women, and it was common knowledge among women just what the vibrators were for.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Civil War opium vial. Worth Point

18. Over-Prescribing Opium During the American Civil War

The United States Civil War was the country’s bloodiest. About 10 percent of all Northern males, and 30 percent of all Southern males, perished in the conflict. Modern estimates put the war’s fatalities at between 785,000 to 1 million deaths – the latter figure representing 3.2% of America’s then-population. If extrapolated to 2020 population estimates, it would be the equivalent of about 10,600,000 deaths.

It was one of the first major “modern” wars, and one in which advances in weaponry outpaced advances in battlefield tactics. The result was high casualties and horrific injuries that confronted the armies’ physicians with unprecedented challenges. The standard of medical care and state of medical knowledge were abysmally low by modern standards. So it is perhaps unsurprising that Civil War-era doctors did not fully appreciate drug addiction and its risks: they prescribed morphine and other opium derivatives like candy. The result was a massive post-war addiction, little reported but as devastating as any modern drug addiction epidemic.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Civil War hospital ward. Pintrest

17. Prescribing Opium For Constipation

Civil War physicians might not have known about antiseptic practices to prevent infections. However, thanks to the recent invention of the hypodermic needle, coupled with the discovery of morphine decades earlier, they could at least do something to ease the pain of wounded soldiers. And when hypodermic needles and morphine were unavailable, opium pills were in plentiful supply – at least in Union hospitals.

So soldiers were often dosed with massive amounts of morphine or opium to deaden the pain of amputations, other surgeries, and various ailments. There were plenty of wartime accounts highlighting the liberality in dispensing drugs. One Union doctor diagnosed wounded soldiers from horseback, and if any needed morphine, the doctor would pour a dose on his hand, and have the soldier lick it. On the Confederate side, one Rebel doctor was known for giving any patient a plug of opium, depending on whether or not he was constipated.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Wounded soldiers in Fredericksburg. Science Source

16. A Massive Post-War Addiction Epidemic

Back in the mid-nineteenth century, the potential for drug addiction was little known, and even among those who knew, the risk was deemed acceptable. When dealing with the immediate pressing problems of treating the Civil War’s injured and sick, the risk of future morphine and opium addiction down the road were seen as lesser evils that could be dealt with later.

“Later” came when the soldiers were discharged from the hospitals. It is estimated that over 400,000 Civil War became morphine addicts because of their wartime experiences. The term “Soldiers Disease” was coined to describe that addiction. Many addicts were readily identifiable by a small bag dangling from a leather thong around their neck, containing morphine tablets and a hypodermic needle. It is perhaps unsurprising that the most chaotic and violent period of the Wild West occurred within a few years of the Civil War’s end. That was when many war veterans still struggling with addiction began arriving in the West.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Painful early dentistry. Irish Times

15. When Yanking Teeth Was a Great Wedding Gift

Visiting the dentist is not exactly an enjoyable experience. However, visiting a dentist today is nothing like the horrors that used to pass for dentistry back in the day. For example, in nineteenth-century England, dental hygiene standards were abysmal, and teeth frequently went bad in early adulthood. So each time a tooth rotted, it entailed a visit to the neighborhood barber/ surgeon, who yanked it out with pliers – without anesthetic.

To spare their kids the misery of having to go through that kind of pain several times in their lifetimes, some parents opted for “full teeth removal” as a present to their offspring when they grew up. “Full teeth removal” meant exactly that: yanking out all the teeth from the mouth, and replacing them with dentures. Full teeth removal was considered such a fine gift, that it was frequently given to brides as a wedding present.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
John R. Brinkley, circa 1921. Wikimedia

14. Early Twentieth Century Viagra: Goat Testicle Implants

Men care about their penises” is probably as great an understatement as has ever been uttered. Men have always worried about their family jewels, and throughout history, there has never been a shortage of those eager to cash in on such concerns. Not least when it comes to the ability – or in this case the inability – to get it up.

Before Viagra came along and ruined the party for many charlatans, quack doctors, witch doctors, and self-declared witches and sorcerers had a field day peddling cures for those complaining of sexual malaise. Even today, despite medical breakthroughs in treating erectile dysfunction, a plausible promise to improve men’s penises, combined with savvy marketing, is one of the easiest moneymakers out there. However, few penis problem cure charlatans were as brazen – or as successful – as the doctor who made a bundle implanting goat testicles into men’s sacks.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
John Brinkley in the operating room. Legends of America

13. “The Goat Glands Doctor”

Throughout history, few have ever made as much out of problematic penis fixes as did “Dr.” John R. Brinkley (1885 – 1942). He became known as the “goat glands doctor”, but might be better thought of as the “goat testicles transplant doctor”. The “Dr.” is in quotes because Brinkley simply bought a medical degree from diploma mill, then began practicing medicine after moving to Milford, Kansas, where he opened a clinic specializing in men’s sexual performance.

For $25, Brinkley injected his patients with nothing more than colored water, plus a promise that it would turn them into demons in bed. Like many charlatans, Brinkley demonstrated that a conman need not be brilliant. So long as the marks are dumb, are willing to suspend disbelief due to wishful thinking, or are too embarrassed to admit that they had been conned, the conman can have his way with them. Early successes – at least successes in getting the marks to part with their money, not successes in curing their erectile dysfunction – emboldened Brinkley into upping his game. So he began peddling the ultimate erectile dysfunction: goat testicle implants.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
A billy goat. Flickr

12. “Why Not?”

Dr. Brinkley’s sexual performance cures were clearly bunk, and at best had a placebo effect with some patients whose problems were psychological rather than physical. However, between his tireless self-promotion, over-the-top personality, and his marks’ eagerness to believe, Brinkley soon developed a reputation as a miracle worker in restoring penises to tip-top performance.

One day in 1918, a patient walked into Brinkley’s clinic, complaining about trouble getting it up. The doctor cracked a joke about how the man would have no problem if he had goats’ testicles – goats having a particular reputation back then for virility. At some point after doctor and patient stopped laughing, they figured “why not?“, and decided to go ahead and put goat balls in the man’s testes. Brinkley even offered the man $150 if he went along with the experiment.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
News article about John Brinkley’s use of goat testes to cure erectile dysfunction. All That Is Interesting

11. The Goat Balls God

Brinkley’s patient claimed that all was well after goat gonads had been implanted in his testicular sac. So Brinkley publicized the success of the operation, hoping to drum up many more patients willing to pay for goat testicle transplants. Soon, Brinkley was performing up to 100 transplant operations a week in his clinic, charging his patients $750 (about $10,000 in 2020 dollars) per. The crude procedure simply placed the goat gonads within a man’s testicle sac, and the patient’s body would then typically absorb the goat tissue as foreign matter.

Medically speaking, the operation had no impact whatsoever – other than the occasional infection. But there was no shortage of patients convincing themselves – or at least going out of their way to convince others – that they were now as virile as goats. Those who were not were typically too embarrassed to open themselves to ridicule, for failing to get it up even with goat balls.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Operating room in Brinkley’s hospital, Milford, Kansas. Imgur

10. Bring Your Own Goat

Brinkley’s goat testicle implants procedure became so popular, that his schedule became jam packed. Patients began bringing their own goats, personally selected by them after observing their prowess, to implant their gonads in their testes. Brinkley’s popularity kept growing, despite the fact that many of his patients came down with infections, and quite a few died. That was unsurprising: in addition to inadequate medical training, Brinkley’s surgery was poorly sterilized, and he often operated on patients while drunk.

However, his popularity kept growing, and increased even further after he put on a show for the press in 1920, during which he performed 34 goat testicle transplants. The press and public ate it up. He hired an advertising agent, who coined the phrase that Brinkley’s procedure turned hapless men into “The ram that am with every lamb“.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
A 1922 news article about Brinkley. WNC Magazine

9. The Animal Testicle Implant Craze

Brinkley’s goat testicle implants were not unique at the time: he had a rival, who specialized in transplanting monkey balls into men’s testicles. However, goat gonads caught on more than monkey balls, and as Brinkley’s fame grew, he widened the list of ailments cured by his procedure to include flatulence, dementia, and cancer.

By 1922, Brinkley was a celebrity, and he traveled to LA to perform a transplant on a Los Angeles Times editor. While in California, he made over $40,000 – serious money back then – from surgeries performed on Hollywood stars. Brinkley liked the West Coast so much, he decided to set up a practice there, complete with a goat farm. However, the California Medical Board denied him a license after finding his resume was “riddled with lies and discrepancies“. Undaunted, Brinkley returned to Kansas, and expanded his Milford clinic.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
John R. Brinkley. Aventuras Na Historia

8. Pioneering Radio Advertising Synergy, the Better to Scam the Gullible

Whatever his shortcomings as a doctor – and those shortcomings were legion – Brinkley was a savvy entrepreneur who quickly grasped the potential of the then-new medium of radio. In 1923, he bought what came to be America’s fourth-biggest radio station, KFKB, chiefly to market his medical practice.

Before long, Brinkley was prescribing medications to his listeners: people would write him, with $2 included in the envelope, and he would diagnose them on air, then prescribe a medication. The medication was typically only available in a Brinkley-owned pharmacy, or one with whom he had cut a deal for a cut of their profits. However, all good things come to an end, and in 1923, California tried to extradite Brinkley. However, Kansas’ governor refused to hand him over.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Contemporary Brinkley cartoon. Kansas Historical Society

7. “Organized Charlatanism”

Brinkley’s political pull in Kansas saved him saved from extradition to California. However, bad press – especially from a rival radio station on a mission to expose Brinkley as a fraud – continued to hound the goat gonads doctor. His popularity began to decline after stories emerged that his operating room was often filthy, and that Brinkley frequently performed surgery while intoxicated.

By 1930, it had emerged that Brinkley had signed over 40 death certificates for patients who had died during his goat testicle transplants. As a result, Kansas’ Medical Board revoked his license, stating that Brinkley “has performed an organized charlatanism … quite beyond the invention of the humble mountebank“.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
John R. Brinkley campaigning for governor. Kansas Historical Society

6. Running for Governor to Get Re-licensed as a Doctor

Things went from bad to worse for Brinkley. Six months after he lost his license to practice medicine, the Federal Radio Commission (predecessor of today’s FCC) refused to renew Brinkley’s radio station’s license. The federal agency determined that the famous doctor’s broadcasts were mostly advertising, in violation of his radio license, as well as being obscene and against the public interest.

The twin blows from the state and federal authorities put a major crimp on Brinkley’s cash flow, and things quickly began to go south for him. Other than appeal, there was little he could do about the lost radio license. However, to get the medical license back, Brinkley hit upon an ingenious solution: run for governor of Kansas. As governor, he could appoint his own members to the Medical Board, and thus get his license back.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
John R. Brinkley during his run for governor. Fountain City Frequency

5. End of the Road for the Goat Gonads Guru

Brinkley launched his campaign for governor just three days after losing his medical license. He ran on a vague platform of public works, lower taxes, higher old-age pensions, and education. Despite being a near last-minute write-in candidate, Brinkley got almost 30% of the vote.

He would have won, but the state’s Attorney General intervened at the last minute to change the rules for write-in votes: only those writing Brinkley’s name as “J. R. Brinkley” would have their votes counted. That disqualified 50,000 Brinkley ballots, which would put have put him over the top had they been counted. Brinkley ran again in 1932, but lost. He then faded away, pursued by numerous medical malpractice and wrongful death lawsuits. By the time John R. Brinkley died in 1942, he was bankrupt.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
A gazelle relieving itself. Flickr

4. The Healing Properties of Poop

Ancient Egyptians swore by the healing properties of gazelle, donkey, dog, and fly dung, and the ability of those animals’ droppings to ward off evil spirits. They also used animal poop to heal their wounds. On the one hand, that might have caused tetanus and other infections on occasion, especially when applying poop to wounds. On the other hand, the microflora in some animal dung contains antibiotics, so the remedy might actually have worked every now and then.

The ancient Greeks borrowed a lot from the Egyptians, including the medical prescription for using crocodile poop as birth control. Ancient Greek women believed that inserting crocodile dung in their vaginas would serve as a powerful contraceptive. Who knows: perhaps it actually worked. At least in the sense that encountering a vagina full of crocodile poop might have been such a huge turn off that it averted sex from occurring in the first place.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Heraclitus of Ephesus. Tribes Manual

3. The Cow Manure Cure

Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC) was an Ancient Greek philosopher who advanced the notion that the essence of the universe is constant change. To that end, he coined the phrase “no man ever steps into the same river twice” in recognition of the notion that everything, like the ever-moving droplets of water drifting downstream on a river, is in constant motion and flux, even if the motion is not readily perceptible.

Heraclitus also propagated the notion of a “unity of opposites”, whereby the universe is a system of balanced exchanges in which all things are paired in a relationship with those things exhibiting contrary properties. Unfortunately, he is probably best known nowadays for the bizarre cure he prescribed himself to cure an illness: coating himself in cow dung. It ended up killing him.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Heraclitus. Wellcome Library, London

2. A “Grade A” A-Hole

Heraclitus was a highly introspective man. He did not come by his philosophy through learning at the hands of another philosopher, but was self-taught. Critical of other philosophers, Heraclitus had a dim view of humanity, and loathed mobs and democracy, preferring instead to rule by a few wise men – a concept that Plato later distilled into the notion that the ideal ruler would be a philosopher-king. Deeming wealth as a form of punishment, Heraclitus wished upon his fellow Ephesians, whom he hated, that they would be cursed with wealth as punishment for their sins.

In short, Heraclitus was a misanthrope. His misanthropy led him to avoid contact with other people for long stretches, during which he wandered alone through mountains and wilderness, surviving on plants and what he could scavenge. As Diogenes summed him up: “finally, [Heraclitus] became a hater of his kind, and roamed the mountains, surviving on grass and herbs“.

People Tried Unworkable Methods to Ward off Illness Outbreaks in History
Cow patties. Farm Homestead

1. What A Way To Go

Heraclitus the Philosopher’s long and interesting life came to a weird end, as a result of his affliction with dropsy, or edema – a painful accumulation of fluids beneath the skin and in the body’s cavities. However, it was not the illness that killed him, but the cure. Healers could offer him neither cure nor relief, so Heraclitus, the self-taught philosopher, sought to apply his self-teaching skills to medicine and heal himself.

He tried an innovative cure by covering himself in cow dung. Heraclitus theorized that the warmth of the manure would dry and draw out of him the “noxious damp humor”, or the fluids accumulated beneath his skin. Covering himself in cow manure, Heraclitus lay out in the sun to dry, only to be immobilized by the cow dung drying around him into a body cast. He was thus unable to shoo off a pack of dogs that came upon him, and ended up eating the philosopher alive.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

All That is Interesting – The Strange, Surprising History of the Vibrator

Anthony, Dave, and Reynolds, Gareth – The United States of Absurdity: Untold Stories From American History (2017)

Daily Beast, April 27th, 2012 – ‘Hysteria’ and the Long, Strange History of the Vibrator

Eyewitness to History – The Flagellants Attempt to Repel the Black Death, 1349

Found in Antiquity – The Five Strangest Deaths of the Philosophers

Gizmodo – “Blowing Smoke Up Your A**” Used to be Literal

Hayes, Joseph, Atlas Obscura – The Victorian Belief That a Train Ride Could Cause Instant Insanity

Haynes, Sterling MD, British Columbia Medical Journal, December 2012 – Special Feature: Tobacco Smoke Enemas

History Learning Site – Cures For the Black Death

Irish Times, September 12th, 2017 – Fake Smiles and False Teeth: A History of Dental Pain

Kakanomics, February 2nd, 2017 – The History of Drugs and War

Listverse – 10 Crazy Cures For the Black Death

Medical Daily, October 7th, 2016 – The Use of Poop in Medical Treatments Throughout History

Medieval History on Black Death – Medieval Medical Knowledge

Mental Floss – Early Trains Were Thought to Make Women’s Uteruses Fly Out

Providentia – Soldier’s Disease

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Heraclitus

Wikipedia – John R. Brinkley