It’s really easy for us to under-appreciate the level of health care available to us today. We don’t need to worry about succumbing to diseases like TB that were once a death sentence and completely incurable.
These days we have vaccines, reliable treatments, diagnostic technology, and medicine for almost every type of ailment – from common coughs all the way up to serious illnesses. Surgery, which was once extremely dangerous, is now controlled, precise, and carried out under sterile conditions. Doctors have an incredible understanding of the human body and new technology is helping them make strides all the time.
But all this amazing medicine and technology has only become available in the past 50 to 60 years. Before then, getting medical care was a little bit of a gamble. In most cases, it was either completely ineffective, very dangerous, or both. It was a case of kill or cure; if the illness didn’t kill you, the cure probably would have.
But what we have to remember is that all these strange practices and techniques helped doctors build their medical knowledge and constantly improve to the point we are at today. That said, you can sleep easier tonight knowing that doctors no longer use these methods.
15. Cut Out A Part Of The Tongue To Stop Stuttering
Have you ever had a problem with stuttering? Stuttering can be really embarrassing and the worst part about it is that the more stressed out you become about the way you sound, the more you stumble over your words. These days speech therapists can assist patients who suffer from this speech disorder, but they haven’t been around for very long.
Back in the 18th and 19th century, your doctor may have recommended a more invasive form of treatment called a hemiglossectomy. This surgery – which was performed with no anesthesia – involved cutting away a part of the tongue. Doctors at the time believed that stuttering began in the vocal cords and that by removing a triangular portion of the tongue they could help the patient speak more clearly. Not only was the treatment ineffective, but many patients died from blood loss during the surgery.
14. Drill A Hole In Your Head To Help With Headaches
Historians believe that trepanation (the official term for drilling a hole in the head) was one of the first ever surgical procedures. Evidence of the use of the procedure has been found in prehistoric cave paintings dating back to the Neolithic era.
In ancient times people believed that drilling these holes was a way to relieve evil spirits which they believed caused brain-related problems and strange behavior. Their paintings indicate that people used this procedure in hopes of curing seizures, migraines, and mental disorders. Luckily for us today we have aspirin, anti-epileptic and anti-psychotic medications to help with these.
But the procedure is still used in modern medicine – usually to treat bleeding on the brain or provide access for neurosurgery. But today the piece of skull is almost always replaced and the operation is performed in highly sterile environments under anesthetic.
13. Prescribe Questionable Substances For Children’s Coughs
In the early 20th century there was no governing body for medicine and medical treatment which meant that anyone could sell treatments, no matter what they contained or whether or not they worked. There were bogus cures for baldness and hair brushes that promised vitality, but one of the most shocking was a remedy for coughing that contained heroin.
The product was marketed by Bayer, who made a fortune in the late 1890s selling aspirin and heroin as cough, cold and pain remedies. What makes this even more unbelievable was that the heroin laced cough syrup was targeted at children.
Unsurprising, reports soon began to filter through about adults and children who were becoming addicted to the medication. In the U.S. heroin was restricted to prescription-only use in 1914 and eventually banned by the FDA in 1924.
12. Bleed Patients To Cure Illness
In ancient times doctors believed that blood and other body fluids needed to be kept in balance to maintain health. One way of maintaining this balance according to them was by bleeding the patient to either cure or prevent disease.
Bloodletting was prescribed for almost every type of ailment for almost 2000 years and was used by surgeons up until the end of the 18th century. The first mention of bloodletting comes from the 5th century BC when Hippocrates advocated the technique to “purge” the body. He modelled this belief around the female menstrual cycle, theorizing that because menstruation “purged women of bad humors” it could work for other ailments as well.
11. Offer Patients A Human Skull To Help With Teeth Grinding
Before doctors had a firm grasp of human anatomy and how the body works, they were more like priests or wizards when it came to illness. They believed that most ailments were caused by demons or were delivered as a punishment from the gods. And their cures were just as strange.
One of the strangest of these cures was the remedy for teeth grinding recorded in ancient Babylonian times. Medicine men at this time believed that teeth grinding was caused by the ghosts of dead relatives who were trying to contact the sleeping person. The cure, according to them, was to sleep with a human skull in the bed for a week. And it couldn’t just be in the bed, the person was encouraged to embrace and kiss the skull to lift the curse. Nowadays all you need is a plastic mouth guard, so much simpler than rolling around in bed with a skull.
10. Ground Up Mummies And Cannibal Cures
These days if a doctor tried to prescribe cannibalism as a treatment you’d be running straight to your nearest police station to report him, but cannibal cures have been reported throughout history and from almost every corner of the world. The ancient Romans believed that drinking the blood of a gladiator could cure chronic seizures and in 17th century England, King Charles drank a brew called Kings Drops, which was made from crushed human skull and alcohol, thought to restore health and vitality.
During the 16th century, another strange health fad swept through Europe. This time Egyptian mummies were being ground up and sold as medicine, but what most people didn’t know is that the mummies were actually recently killed slaves and not original mummies. Up until two centuries ago, people still believed that powdered mummies were a cure for bleeding. Anyone ever think of just trying a bandage?
9. Recommend Stale Urine For Teeth Whitening
As distasteful as it sounds it’s 100% true – the ancient Romans used to swill mouthfuls of urine to help them keep their teeth shining and white. And we’re not talking about fresh wee-wee either because they discovered that if the urine was stale it was far more effective. As the urine began to break down it would produce ammonia, which was an effective bleaching agent, although it couldn’t have tasted very nice. Especially when you consider that they sometimes used animal urine if human pee was in short supply. As effective as it sounds I think I’ll just stick to whitening strips!
8. Prescribe Cigarettes For Asthma Sufferers
Today you might scoff at the idea of smoking to help ease asthma because you know that cigarettes and tobacco products are very harmful. But most ancient cultures believed that inhaling vapors and smoke could actually help clear the chest and treat coughs, asthma, and other respiratory problems. And when cigarettes became available some were marketed specifically for people who suffered from asthma and were even recommended by doctors. Many people even swore by them as a remedy, but didn’t realize that they were actually doing themselves further harm.
It was the U.S.A. that first started putting warning labels on cigarettes and that was only in 1966. These became known as the Surgeon General’s Warning intended to warn the user about the diseases linked to tobacco use. Before then cigarettes could even be purchased and used by children!
7. Crocodile Dung As Birth Control
Today women are completely free to choose whether or not they want to have a baby. To that effect there are a number of different contraceptive methods available that not only help curb the spread of STDs but also prevent unwanted pregnancies. But most of these are modern inventions. Even the condom, one of the most widely used forms of protection, was only introduced in the late 16th century. So what did people do before that?
Well throughout the ages there have been many different ideas for birth control. Most of them involved inserting a piece of cloth, soaked in different ingredients, into the vagina to act as a sperm barrier. In ancient Egypt, one of the most sought after ingredients for this method was crocodile dung. It was quite expensive and we’re not sure how it worked as a birth control, but we do know that it often led to infection. Who would have thought?
6. Give Patients Mercury As Medicine
If you accidentally swallowed mercury, you’d rush right to the emergency room, right? Sure, today you would call an ambulance, but until about 100 years ago people were ingesting mercury on purpose.
It sounds inconceivable, but people have been fascinated with this silvery substance for a long time and for almost 1000 years they reasoned that something as incredible as mercury just had to have healing qualities so they kept trying it on different ailments. There were mercury ointments marketed for wounds and skin conditions and it was prescribed by doctors for syphilis and typhoid fever.
Of course, when the patients started showing symptoms of mercury poisoning like violent muscle spasms, chest pain, difficulty breathing and eventually death, it was easy to blame it on their worsening illness rather than on the “cure”.
5. Overdose Schizophrenic Patients With Insulin
Being afflicted with schizophrenia is a terrifying mental illness that causes the sufferer to have difficulty distinguishing between what is real and what is not. It manifests with false beliefs, feelings of paranoia and bizarre behavior and even today there is no known cure for it. However, at least today we have drugs that can help.
Before these special types of neuroleptic drugs came along in the 1960s suffers were pretty much doomed to a grim existence. There were “treatments” but by today’s standards, they were completely barbaric.
One of these treatments was Insulin Shock Therapy which was introduced in 1927 and used extensively throughout the 1940s and 1950s. For this treatment, the patient was repeatedly injected with large doses of insulin which caused them to go into comas. Once they were in the coma the doctor would shock them with electricity. Those poor people.
4. Perform Lobotomies To “Cure” Mental Illness
Just hearing the word “lobotomy” conjures up some pretty dark images in your mind, doesn’t it? Just to clarify what this procedure entailed – a doctor would enter through the patient’s orbital cavity with an instrument which looked suspiciously like an ice pick and scrape away the connections to the prefrontal part of the brain. Keep in mind that the doctor could not see what he was doing in there. This “operation” was used extensively during the 1940s and 1950s to treat patients with mental disorders until anti-psychotic medications became available in the late 1950s. Thankfully this horrendous treatment was then almost completely abandoned.
So I suppose the question is – did splicing up the brain ever cure anyone of mental illness? The results seem to have been mixed – some patients became even worse after the procedure, some committed suicide, and others became more docile and easy to care for. But did it actually cure anyone? Probably not.
3. Treat Hemorrhoids With A Hot Metal Rod
Hemorrhoids, also commonly known as piles, are painful and embarrassing, but with modern medicine, this ailment is relatively easy to treat. And if they become too severe surgeons are able to operate to remove them. It’s still not the kind of ailment you feel comfortable talking about, but at least there is help available.
In the past, you would not have been so lucky. The onset of hemorrhoids would have meant that you were in for an even more painful remedy.
The ancient treatment for piles was to crouch naked in front of your doctor while he heated a thin metal rod in the fire. When it was white hot he would remove it and place it – you guessed it – into your anus. By doing this they hoped to pop the hemorrhoid or cauterize it. And of course, there was no such thing as anesthesia so you would just have to tough it out.
2. Use Extended Bed Rest For “Hysteria”
Ladies, I think we should be more grateful that we live in a modern era where we are basically allowed to do as we please. I know that I definitely would not have fared well back in 1800s when women who read too much and wanted to vote were labeled as “hysterical”. Insane asylums were packed to the rafters with these poor women and the so-called treatments were not much better than torture.
The “Rest Treatment” that was commonly prescribed consisted of confining the woman to bed for at least six weeks. She would have to lie in one position and was not allowed to read, draw, or talk. Because doctors believed that plump women enjoyed better mental health than skinny ones the women on bed rest would be fed a steady diet of bread, butter, milk, and mutton chops to fatten them up.
1. Drink Patients’ Urine To Diagnose Them
Today’s doctors have a massive amount of diagnostic tools at their disposal. Using tools like x-rays, scans, and blood tests they are able to get to the root of most medical conditions quickly and advise on the correct way to treat them. But before all these fancy tools became available doctors usually carried a small bag of basic tools and needed to rely on their senses to help them diagnose.
These doctors needed to work with what they could see, hear, feel, smell, and yes, taste. You see they quickly realized that the urine that came from diabetic patients attracted ants and smelt sweet. So taste testing urine quickly became the optimal way to see if a patient was suffering from high blood sugar. Think about that the next time a doctor asks you for a sample!