10 Old Medical Practices Worse Than the Disease


Medical science has come a long way in the last century, but even with all our advancements we’ve hardly scratched the surface in understanding the wonder that is the human body. The procedures and treatments used today will be replaced with better techniques in the future, and maybe some treatments that we consider normal will look just as crazy in the 23rd century as these old medical techniques do to us now.

10. Smoke in a Sensitive Place


If lives needed to be saved in the 17th and 18th centuries, people relied on a technique which was thought to cure pretty much every disease under the sun. It was called a tobacco smoke enema, and it involved blowing smoke exactly where you’d expect an enema to go. It was believed that a struggling respiratory system could be kick-started by warming it up with tobacco smoke.

Respiratory kits that included rubber tubing and bellows were sold, and it was later diversified as a cure to pretty much anything from the common cold to cholera to swimmers saved from drowning. The key was the nicotine, which acted as a stimulant to the adrenal glands that in turn produced adrenalin. The kits were discontinued when the idea of them having any healing properties were debunked in the early 19th century, when scientists began to discover the harmful effects that tobacco had on the heart and lungs.

9. Heroin


Heroin, one of the most addictive and illegal substances in the world, was once marketed by Bayer as a cough remedy. It was believed that heroin was less addictive than morphine, from which it was synthetically created. The test subjects said the drug made them feel “heroic,” thus the name. The drug was seen as a miracle cure for tuberculosis, but the addictiveness of the drug saw hospitals being crammed with patients addicted to heroin. By 1913 Bayer decided to stop making it, and heroin slowly developed a very different reputation.

8. Shock Therapy


In the 1800s some scientists believed that electricity possessed healing properties, and a simple jolt of electricity was considered a miracle cure-all. Of all the areas it could be applied, a man’s genitals were considered to be the most effective. It was wrongly believed that masturbation was the cause of impotency in men, and the cure for it was thought to be a jolt of electricity directly onto the junk. Electrotherapeutic devices were sold as cures for sexual inadequacy, and these devices were advertised with the promise of bringing youth and vigor back into a man. Thankfully, these issues can now be resolved with pills instead of torture techniques scaled back for civilian use.

7. Moldy Bread and Dung


Ancient Egypt had a well-oiled medical system, but they were limited by the knowledge of their time. Doctors performed medical and spiritual healing on patients to cure them from their diseases and protect them from evil spirits. Medicines and ointments were derived from nature, but the contents probably disgusted the people forced to take them.

Everything from lizard blood to moldy bread was considered a potential medicine. Have a toothache? A dead mouse paste was thought to ease the pain, while moldy bread was used as disinfectant. But the most disgusting medicine of all has to be the dung remedy. Donkey, fly and even human excrement was thought to possess healing properties, while Egyptian contraceptives consisted of dried crocodile dung that was inserted into the vagina. At least it wasn’t electrified first.

6. Morphine Syrup


Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was a 19th century concoction for children and infants. The syrup was marketed as a remedy to restlessness, especially during teething. The company claimed to have formulated the syrup while keeping in mind the safety of the most vulnerable members of the family.

Except in 1910 The New York Times ran an article pointing out the dangerous ingredients the syrup contained. The many eyebrow raising chemicals included morphine and alcohol, and while that might sound like a good time to some adults, the wrong dose could easily harm a child.

5. Lobotomies


Mental illnesses were treated poorly as late as the mid-20th century. In the 1940s, lobotomies were a popular cure for mental illness — surgeons drilled a hole in the skull to get access to the brain and remove a part of it. A physician named Walter Freeman devised a faster yet even more horrifying procedure that involved shoving an ice pick into the corner of the eye while the patient lay unconscious. The surgeries produced at best limited results, and at worst resulted in tragedy that left the patient mentally crippled.

4. Mercury


Mercury is renowned for its toxicity today, but centuries ago this liquid silver element fascinated people so much that it was believed to be the elixir of life. The ancient Greeks used it as an ointment and antiseptic against wounds and scratches, while the ancient Chinese believed that consuming mercury could prolong your life. Emperor Qin Shi Huang became one of mercury’s most famous victims when he consumed the element on the recommendation of his doctors.

Even in the early 20th century, mercury was used to cure STDs such as syphilis prior to the introduction of penicillin. Doctors prescribed heavy dosages of mercury based ointments, which promptly created their own problems. Consuming mercury can cause everything from tooth loss to organ failure to permanent damage to the nervous system and even death.

3. Hot Irons in a Sensitive Place


Hemorrhoid surgeries aren’t fun, but thanks to modern anesthetics patients can get through the entire ordeal without feeling any pain. But back in medieval times, sufferers of hemorrhoids had to either sit on a curved stone once sat on by St. Fiacre, a saint associated with healing powers, or get a hot iron rod rammed all the way up where the sun don’t shine by a monk. Neither method was effective, but at least the rock sounds scenic.

2. Vibration


Many women own at least one vibrator, but pleasure wasn’t the reason they were invented. Back in the day it was believed that women had little to no sexual desire, and this belief left women frustrated and complaining of sleepless nights, nervousness, irritability and other symptoms that now get joked about by stand-up comedians. Their frustration was misinterpreted as hysteria, the cure for which was first a doctor applying oil to the vagina and massaging it with their fingers, and later the application of a vibrator. These massages of course gave women orgasms and relief from “hysteria,” but doctors called them “hysterical paroxysms.” At the time it was widely thought that women had no orgasms, and go ahead and insert your own joke here.

1. Trepanation


Trepanation, the oldest form of surgery known to man, is basically a fancy word for drilling a hole into the skull without anesthetic. Trepanation dates back to the days of stone tools and good old fashioned cave living — archaeological evidence dates trepanation back to the early Mesolithic era, and there is also evidence of the Incas and Aztecs practicing it.

The procedure leaned more towards mysticism then medicine, as the hole in the head was believed to release evil spirits trapped inside the body. Over the years trepanation found its way to Europe, where it was believed to be a potential cure to migraines, seizures and even insanity (although they must have been some pretty nasty migraines to make that cure worth it). As primitive as it may sound, there’s evidence that most patients survived the procedure and lived on. Even today the procedure has its uses, albeit only for very specific operations and in a much safer form.

Want to read about some more medical marvels?
Heroin wasn’t the only drug that used to be legal — read about how you used to be able to get cocaine and opium over the counter. Or read up on medical advances that make what we have now look like what you just read about.
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