The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History

Khalid Elhassan - May 9, 2023

Health beliefs underwent many changes throughout history. Take obesity. Nowadays, we try our best to slim down and shed the pounds. Throughout most of human history, however, to be fat was not something to avoid, but something to aspire to. Or take farts: there was a time when sniffing farts was thought to have health benefits. Below are many absurd stories about those and other historic health facts.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Fart huffing was once prescribed to ward off the plague. History Daily

Fart Sniffing Was Thought to be Good for People’s Health

The Great Plague of London, which began in 1665, was England’s last major bubonic plague outbreak. It was not as bad as the Black Death had been a few centuries before, but it was bad enough. In a year and half, over 100,000 perished, with nasty symptoms that included stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhea, and copious rectal bleeding. Medical knowledge at the time was dismal, and people got desperate for a method to combat or cure the plague. Amidst their desperation, some doctors turned to a radical remedy: sniffing farts from a jar.

Their basic premise was that the plague was caused by a miasma, or toxic vapors in the air. They figured that if people diluted the nasty air with something equally nasty, it might reduce the chances of catching the plague. Accordingly, they told people to have something that smelled bad at hand. To wit, that they store their farts in jars and seal them in. That way if the plague showed up in their neighborhood, they could open the jars, and breathe in the fart fumes to ward off the plague’s bad vapors. Needless to say, fart-huffing never saved anybody the plague.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Meeting of the Fat Men’s Club of New York. Atlas Obscura

Fat Men’s Clubs Were a Thing

The profits of the modern era’s weight loss industry expand in tandem with the expansion of our waistlines. The existence of such an industry would have baffled our ancestors, most of whom could only have dreamt of being so lucky as to have to worry about being too fat. Between running from saber toothed tigers or back breaking toil as peasants and serfs, they were neither sedentary enough, nor had that much extra (or even enough) to eat to pack on the pounds. When food and leisure were scarce, to be on the larger side was a sign of good fortune. And throughout history, the fortunate have loved to showcase their good fortune. Which explains the rise of fat men’s clubs in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Contemporary illustration of a clam bake for the Fat Men’s Association of Connecticut. Sun Journal

Prosperous fat men got together to celebrate and showcase their obesity, and membership was contingent on weight – usually, a 200 pound minimum. At their get-togethers they had weigh-ins that often got competitive. Especially at clubs that assigned roles based on weight, with the fattest appointed president, the second chunkiest treasurer, and so on. Nowadays we downplay our weight, but in yesteryear’s fat clubs, members went to great lengths to add weight at weigh-ins by stuffing their pockets with coins, among other shenanigans. It wasn’t until the 1920s, when the link between obesity and poor health became better known, that fat men’s clubs declined. One of the biggest, the New England Fat Men’s Club, last met in 1924. By then, membership had dropped from 10,000 to just 38, and when none passed the weigh-in, the club disbanded.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
John R. Brinkley. Kansas Historical Society

Cures for Men’s Virility Have Always Been a Money Maker

Before Viagra, charlatans peddled many cures for those with poor male reproductive health. Few made as much out of problematic erection 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 a diploma mill. He began to practice medicine after moving to Milford, Kansas, where he opened a clinic specializing in men’s sexual performance. For $25, Brinkley injected his patients with colored water, and promised that it would turn them into tigers in bed. Like many charlatans, Brinkley demonstrated that a conman need not be brilliant, so long as his marks are dumb, are willing to suspend disbelief due, or are too embarrassed to admit that they had been conned.

Brinkley’s male performance cures, at best, had a placebo effect with some whose problems were psychological rather than physical. However, between his tireless self-promotion, over the top personality, and his marks’ eagerness to believe, he soon developed a reputation as a miracle worker in male libido fixes. One day in 1918, a patient walked into Brinkley’s clinic, and complained that he couldn’t get 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.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
John R. Brinkley. Legends of America

When Goat and Monkey Testicle Transplants Were All the Rage

The patient claimed that all was well with his manhood, and Brinkley publicized the operation’s success. Soon, Brinkley was performing 100 transplants a week, at $750 (about $13,000 in 2023 dollars) per. The crude procedure simply placed goat gonads within a man’s testicle sac, and the patient’s body typically absorbed the goat tissue. The operation had no impact whatsoever on the patients’ reproductive health. But many convinced themselves – or at least tried to convince others – that they were now as virile as goats. Those who were not were too embarrassed to open themselves to ridicule, for failing to get it up even with goat balls. Brinkley’s procedure became so popular, that his schedule became jam packed. Patients even brought their own goats, personally selected by them after observing their prowess, to implant their gonads in their testes.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
John R. Brinkley used goat testicles to “cure” erectile dysfunction. All That is Interesting

Many patients became infected, and some died – Brinkley’s surgery was poorly sterilized, and he often operated drunk. However, his popularity grew steadily. It increased after he put on a show for the press in 1920, in 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“. Brinkley was actually not unique back then: he had a rival, who specialized in transplanting monkey testicles into men. However, goat gonads caught on more than monkey parts. As Brinkley’s fame grew, he widened the list of ailments cured by his procedure to include flatulence, dementia, and cancer. By 1922, he was a celebrity, and travelled to LA to perform a transplant on a Los Angeles Times editor.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
John R. Brinkley. Aventuras na Historia

The Goat Gonad Doctor Had His Medical License Revoked

While in California, Brinkley made over $40,000 – serious money back then – from surgeries performed on Hollywood stars. He liked the West Coast so much, he 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. Whatever his shortcomings as a doctor, Brinkley was a savvy entrepreneur who saw 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 wrote him, with $2 included in the envelope, he diagnosed them on air, then prescribed a medication.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
A 1922 article about John R. Brinkley. WNC Magazine

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. Kansas’ governor refused to hand him over. Nonetheless, 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 surgery was often filthy, and that Brinkley frequently operated on patients while drunk. By 1930, it 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“.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Victorian doctor fingers away a female patient’s “hysteria”. Pinterest

Victorian Doctors Thought Aroused Women Suffered from a Health Ailment

The cliché “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” is an admittedly tired shortcut to express 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 libido were diagnosed with “female hysteria”. The prescribed medical treatment for their poor health was a pelvic massage to bring about a “female paroxysm”. That was Victorian speak for “orgasm”.

A doctor would take it upon himself to stimulate a woman to climax. Though this was labeled as a medical treatment. That would supposedly cure whatever ailed her. 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 picked it up, and ran away with it.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
A steam-powered vibrator. 9gag

Coal-Powered Steam Vibrators Were Used to Cure Female Health Maladies

Late nineteenth century doctors believed that there was a female hysteria epidemic. Some prominent physicians estimated that three out of every four American women suffered from the malady. However, inducing “female paroxysm” in patients to restore them to good health took a lot of time. 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. So physicians turned to mechanical vibrators. The first steam-powered vibrator, fueled with coal packed into a furnace, was invented in 1869. However, such vibrators were bulky contraptions, some as big as dining room tables. They took up too much space in doctors’ offices, and were too cumbersome to tote around in a medical kit for house visits.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
An early twentieth century vibrator ad – everybody knew it was not intended for use on the temple. Period Paper

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 health devices. Specifically, 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.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Ancient Egyptians swore by the health benefits of donkey poop. iStock Photos

When Poop Was Used in Health Cures

Most people would agree that dung is disgusting. However, it is widely available, and at some point some ancient people decided that it might be useful as medicine and health restorative. Whether for better or for worse, the exact details of how somebody first arrived at that brainstorm are lost in the mists of history, but there must have been an interesting tale involved. However it came about, by the time civilization arose, poop was often prescribed to treat a variety of illnesses and assorted maladies.

Ancient Egyptians, for example, swore by the healing properties of donkey, dog, gazelle, and fly dung, and the ability of their 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 poop was applied to open cuts. On the other hand, the microflora in some animal dung contains antibiotics, so the remedy might actually have had some health benefits.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Nile crocodile poop was believed to be good for one’s health. Wikimedia

Crocodile Poop Contraceptives

The use of fly poop as medicine raises some fascinating questions. Not just about its health benefits, if it had any. More fascinating is just how did people back then, long before microscopes were invented, even manage to spot, let alone gather, tiny fly turds? However they went about the collection of fly poop, the Ancient Egyptians had a good reputation as physicians. As a result, many contemporary cultures looked up to them and tried to emulate their health care practices.

The Ancient Greeks in particular borrowed a lot from the Egyptians, and one of those borrowed things was a prescription that used crocodile poop as birth control. Ancient Greek women believed that crocodile dung inserted into their vaginas would serve as a powerful contraceptive. It might have even worked. At least in the sense that to encounter a vagina full of crocodile poop might have been such a huge turn off that it prevented sexual intercourse in the first place.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Disposal of Black Death victims. Imgur

The Black Death Triggered Many Crazy Health Remedies

The Black Death killed about a third of Europeans. Victims often died within days, with horrific symptoms like gruesome boils, bloody lungs, severe vomiting, and high fevers. People panicked, and many latched on to crazy cures. Most such health restoratives were based on superstition, ignorance, and dubious logic of the kind that put two and two together to come up with nine. Take the logic that took people from figuring that the plague – or some variants thereof – was airborne, and the solution: head to the sewers. People visited, and sometimes even lived 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 who visited or lived in sewers susceptible to other illnesses caused by their vile surroundings.

A popular plague remedy was treacle – an uncrystalized syrupy byproduct of sugar refinement. In and of itself, treacle, although without any health benefits, was relatively harmless. However, this was a medieval plague cure, so there was a wacky medieval twist: 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 health benefits 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.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Medieval doctor bleeding a patient. Fine Art America

Urine and Poop Were Used to Cure the Black Death

During the Black Death, many came to believe that urine had health benefits. So they soaked themselves in the stuff. Plague victims were bathed in urine several times a day, in the belief that it would either cure them, or at least alleviate the symptoms. Of course, it did no such thing – it just caused them to spend their final hours reeking of urine. However, urine did not cause them to stink anywhere near as bad as the next cure. The Black Death often caused pus-filled swellings, known as buboes, to erupt all over the skin. One treatment was to lance open the buboes to allow the disease to leave the body. So far, not so bad. Then a special potion was to be applied to the lanced buboes. A potion in which poo featured prominently.

The cuts in the plague victims’ bodies were slathered with a concoction of tree resin, white lily roots, and human excrement. The fetid paste was pushed and packed firmly into the open wounds, then tightly wrapped to keep the nauseating mixture inside. Another plague remedy was to kill Jewish people. 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, many Christians blamed the Jews, who were accused of deliberately poisoning wells to cause the plague. Some Jewish innocents 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. Which in reality, was a function of Jews practicing better hygiene.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Contemporary illustration of Jews being burned alive during the Black Death. NPR

Flagellation and Genocide to Ward the Black Death

Thousands of Jews were massacred in attempts to ward the Black Death. Some were summarily executed, others were crammed into their homes or synagogues which were then set alight, and others were murdered in various, fiendishly cruel ways. The fact that none of the preceding cures worked reinforced the belief that their misfortunes were the result of divine displeasure. God was mad at mankind for its sins, so he sent the plague as punishment. Many reasoned that God might stop punishing them if they punished themselves. So they flogged 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.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Dutch flagellants during the Black Death. Encyclopedia Britannica

Practices like trying to achieve redemption through flagellation were most popular in times of crisis, and 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 in the thousands – roamed the countryside, dragging crosses while flogging themselves and each other into a religious frenzy. In one 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. The practice proved a temporary fad, and enthusiasm for flagellation waned as suddenly as it had arisen.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Medieval Well In San Gimignano. Free Stock Images

Medieval People Didn’t Drink Booze Instead of Water

It is often said that people in centuries past only drank beer and wine in lieu of water, because water was too often contaminated with deadly pathogens. That is untrue. In the Middle Ages, for example, water was the most popular drink – as it was throughout all of humanity’s existence, for that matter. After all, water is free (mostly). It is true that people in the Middle Ages did not have the kinds of water purification treatments that the water coming out of our faucets nowadays usually goes through. While contamination was a problem, medieval people – like all humans since our species first walked upright – knew enough to spot and avoid obviously contaminated water.

In short, medieval people had enough common sense and common knowledge to know that swampy, muddy, and cloudy water was bad for their health. Medieval health manuals and medical texts actually praised water for its health benefits – so long as it came from good sources. Medieval authorities went to great lengths to supply people with drinking water. For example, London constructed ‘The Conduit’ in the 1200s, using lead pipes to bring fresh water from a spring outside the city walls to London’s center, where people had free access to it.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Medieval monk drawing water from a well. Medievalists

Medieval People (Luckily) Believed That Water Was Good for Their Health

Although medieval people did not avoid water per se, they preferred beer and wine. Provided they could get and afford such beverages. People did drink a whole lot of beer and ale and wine in those days, but it was not because their water was bad. Instead, they consumed those alcoholic beverages simply because they liked both their taste and effect. The authorities knew and catered to that preference, such as during public celebrations in London. For example, the return of Edward I from the Crusades and the coronation of Richard II saw London stop the flow of water in its pipes, and its replacement with wine for a day.

For those who could afford it, wine was the drink of choice. However, like the ancient Greeks and Romans before them, medieval Europeans did not drink their wine neat. Instead, they usually mixed it with water to dilute its power. For those who could not afford wine, beer and ale were plentiful and cheap. It should be noted, however, that beer and ale back then were far weaker than they are today. Also, considering the long days and hard labor medieval workers put in, whether in the fields or shops or other employment, beer and ale did more than just quench thirst. They also provided a significant intake of calories throughout the day to keep them going.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Dentistry used to be excruciating. Jane Austen’s World

Yanking Teeth as a Wedding Gift

A visit to the dentist is an unwelcome experience to many, and teeth removal could be as unpleasant as, well… having teeth removed. But whatever one thinks of a dental visit today, it is nothing like the horrors that once passed for dentistry. For example, in nineteenth century England, dental health and hygiene standards were abysmal, and teeth frequently went bad in early adulthood. Whenever a tooth rotted, it required a visit to the neighborhood barber/ surgeon, who yanked it out with pliers, without anesthetic.

That led to some odd gift giving. 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: yank out all the teeth from the mouth, and replace them with dentures. Full teeth removal was considered such a fine gift, that it was frequently given to brides as a wedding present.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Heraclitus of Ephesus. Wikimedia

Cow Poop and the Death of a Philosopher

Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC) was an Ancient Greek philosopher who advanced the notion that the universe’s essence is constant change. To that end, he coined the phrase “no man ever steps into the same river twice“. It captured the notion that everything, like droplets of water drifting downstream on a river, is in constant motion and flux, even if the motion is not 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 things exhibiting contrary properties.

Unfortunately, Heraclitus is probably best known nowadays for the bizarre health cure he prescribed himself to cure an illness: coating himself in cow dung. It killed him. Heraclitus was a highly introspective man. He did not learn his philosophy from other philosophers, but was self-taught. Critical of other philosophers, Heraclitus had a dim view of humanity, and loathed mobs and democracy. He preferred rule by a few wise men – a concept that Plato later distilled into the notion that a philosopher king would be the ideal ruler. Deeming wealth 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.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Heraclitus thought dried cow poop would cure him. Farm Homestead

The Supposed Health Benefits of Dried Cow Dung

Heraclitus’s misanthropy made him avoid contact with other people for long stretches, in which he wandered the wilderness alone, 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“. His 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.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Heraclitus was eaten alive by a pack of dogs. KTVQ

He tried an innovative health 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. They ate him alive.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Ancient Egyptians used pee on wheat and barley to test for pregnancy. 9gag

Ancient Pregnancy Tests

In ancient times, long before modern medicine or the concept of medicine as a professional discipline existed, people did not have a firm grasp on why some women got pregnant and others did not. They also had no way to predict pregnancy, or to tell the gender of a fetus in a woman’s womb. That did not stop some ancient healers – whether they were charlatans or whether they simply acted on sincerely held but mistaken beliefs – from taking a stab at it.

Some of those attempts even worked. One of the earliest written records of a pregnancy test was found in an Ancient Egyptian papyrus that dates to around 1350 BC. It called for a woman who might be pregnant to pee on wheat and barley seeds over the course of several days. According to that test: “If the barley grows, it means a male child. If the wheat grows, it means a female child. If both do not grow, she will not bear at all“.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Ancient Egyptian women. St. Mary’s University

This Ancient Egyptian Pregnancy Test Actually Worked More Often Than Not

When the Ancient Egyptian pee-on-wheat-and-barley pregnancy test was subjected to modern scientific examination in 1963, it turned out that there might actually have been something to it. To be sure, the test did nothing to predict whether the fetus was male or female. However, it did not do too badly when it came to the detection of whether a woman was pregnant or not. 70 percent of the time, the pee of pregnant women actually promoted growth in wheat and barley.

By contrast, the pee of non-pregnant women (or men) did not positively impact plant growth. It was the earliest known example of testing for pregnancy by detecting something unique in the urine of pregnant women. Scholars identified this test as the first recorded in history similar to modern pregnancy tests: it identified something in the pee of pregnant women that is not present in the pee or those who are not with child. The elevated levels of estrogen in pregnant women’s pee might have been the key to the test’s success.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Ancient Egyptians swore by the garlic pregnancy test. University of Texas School of Human Ecology

A Less Successful Ancient Pregnancy Test

As seen above, the pee-on-plants pregnancy test actually worked more often than not. Another Ancient Egyptian pregnancy test, albeit a less successful one, revolved around garlic. Women who might be pregnant placed a clove of raw garlic next to their cervix when they went to bed at night. When they woke up the next morning, if the sulfuric taste of garlic had migrated to their mouth, they were thought to be pregnant. However, modern scientific tests have not supported the effectiveness of the garlic pregnancy test.

Egyptian men also had a special use for garlic. Ancient Greek philosopher Charmidas wrote that Egyptian husbands chewed garlic cloves on their way home from their mistresses. That way, their wives would not suspect that anybody would have been kissing them with such bad breath. Other ancient cultures ascribed various health benefits to garlic, from a rabies cure to headache relief. Faith in garlic’s benefits lasted for quite some time. The Roman naturalist Pliny thought garlic could sap a magnet’s power, while Roman legionaries were fed garlic in the belief that it would give them courage. Either that, or repel the enemy with their garlic breath.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Gladiators. Galleria Borghese

Ancient Romans Swore by the Health Benefits of Gladiator Body Fluids

Ancient Romans had 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 fantasies for many Roman women, and for quite a few Roman men, for that matter. If the gladiator fantasy could not be gratified directly – and huge, although not insurmountable, social barriers stood in the way – it might be gratified another way.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
A bronze strigil. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gladiator bodily fluids, especially their sweat, were highly sought after commodities in Ancient Rome. Rich women were willing to pay a hefty price for sweat and dirt from the bodies of famous gladiators. 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 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 mixed it with cosmetics and perfumes – which in Ancient Rome were usually the preserve of women of status.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
‘With a Turned Thumb’, by Jean Leon Gerome, 1872. Wikimedia

Gladiator Blood Was Highly Prized as a Health Cure

Gladiator blood was also highly sought after. Many women applied the blood of their favorite gladiators to coat their jewelry, combs, wigs, and other accoutrements, 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. Gladiator blood’s usefulness was not limited to cosmetics and aphrodisiacs. It was also believed to have health benefits, 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 the 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!”

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Victorian women – contemporaries thought train speeds would make their uteruses fly out of their bodies. Clinica da Mama

Victorians Thought Fast Trains Would Make Women’s Uteruses Fly Out of Their Bodies

When trains first entered service in the nineteenth century, many feared 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 mph. Quite slow, by today’s standards, but until 1829, it is unlikely that any humans had ever experienced such speeds – unless they were falling off a cliff or the such. 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 could not withstand travel at speeds faster than those of a galloping horse. Train alarmists reasoned that passengers’ internal organs would get compressed against their backs, with potentially lethal results.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Early trains, circa 1830. Wikimedia

Women were thought to be especially at risk, as it was feared that high train speeds would blow their uteruses out of their bodies. The paranoia about train speeds killing people with G forces eventually receded. Trains proliferated, and nobody died because their hearts or lungs were flattened against their backs, and no women had their uteruses fly out of their bodies. However, the early fears were replaced by another bizarre fear, this one of a danger to mental health instead of physical health. By the 1850s, Victorians worried that the steadily increasing train speeds, combined with the rattle and jarring motions within railway cars, injured passengers’ brains and drove people insane.

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
Victorians thought trains made people crazy. Atlas Obscura

Victorians Thought Train Rides Were Hazardous to Mental Health

Sensationalist media whipped 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 attacked 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 frenzy while the train was in motion, then calming down when it slowed down and stopped, was repeated until the train reached Liverpool.

The day’s newspapers and mental health professionals linked that nutjob’s bouts of madness to train travel. However, rather than reason that he was a mentally disturbed individual, for whom train travel was a trigger, they concluded that train travel caused his mental illness. The belief persisted, well into the twentieth century, that the speed and motion of trains drove people mad. The pattern of flawed analysis that confused causation with correlation repeated 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.


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)

Atlas Obscura – The Fat Men’s Clubs That Revelled in Excess

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

BBC – The Weird History of Contraception

Best Glam Health and Lifestyle – Gladiator Sweat and Other Surprising Aphrodisiacs of the Ancient World

Carson, Gerald – The Roguish World of Doctor Brinkley (1960)

Cracked – The Exclusive World of 19th-Century Upper-Class ‘Fat Men’s Clubs’

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

Haviland, David – Why You Should Store Your Farts in a Jar & Other Oddball or Gross Maladies, Afflictions, Remedies, and “Cures” (2010)

History Collection – Strangest Hygiene Practices from the Middle Ages

History Learning Site – Cures For the Black Death

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

Journal of Popular Culture, Volume 25, Issue 1, Summer 1991 – Medical Charlatanism: The Goat Gland Wizard of Milford, Kansas

Lee, Alton R. – The Bizarre Careers of John R. Brinkley (2002)

Listverse – 10 Amazing Aphrodisiacs From History

Listverse – 10 Crazy Cures For the Black Death

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

Medievalists – Did People Drink Water in the Middle Ages?

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

Mental Floss – The Fart Jars of 17th-Century Europe

Moorehead, Alan – The White Nile (1960)

Moseley, James – The Mystery of Herbs and Spices: Scandalous, Romantic, and Intimate Biographies of the World’s Most Notorious Ingredients (2006)

NPR – The Forgotten History of Fat Men’s Clubs

Office of NIH History – A Timeline of Pregnancy Testing

Ranker – Were Medieval People Really Drunk on Beer and Wine All the Time?

Slate – What Was the Drink of Choice in Medieval Europe?

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Heraclitus

Stuff – The Torturous Path to Finding the Source of the Nile

World History Encyclopedia – Medieval Cures for the Black Death