The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History
The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History

The Craziest Cures & Health Fads from History

Khalid Elhassan - May 9, 2023

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