Doctors take a Hippocratic oath to do no harm to their patients, but you wouldn’t know it from reading about these historical practices! Some of these so-called medical “treatments” sound more like torture devices from where we’re standing, but these were standard practice as far as medieval health professionals were concerned. Leeches, drinking urine, lobotomies performed at the drop of a hat–you name it, it’s in here and it was perfectly normal to these people too.
To be fair to ancient physicians, they were only working with the very limited resources they had access to and like everything in life, it’s all about trial and error. The only problem is, the medical errors of the past seemed to happen too often for our liking, and by the sounds of things, it didn’t seem to matter how many died unnecessarily while on the operating table. Still, as long as it was all in the name of medical progress, eh?
As troubling as our world might be today, in terms of politics and environmental concerns, we can at least be thankful that we live in a time of safe and humane modern medicine. Hospital waiting times may be longer than they used to, and bills have definitely gotten steeper, but at least we’re not sent home with a bag of leeches or crushed genitals (don’t ask). The following “treatments” were all genuine medical practices at one point. Take a look with fear but also gratitude. A boatload of gratitude…
15 Letting The Illness “Bleed” Out Of The Patient
This unbelievably stupid and deadly treatment was known as “bloodletting,” and as its name suggests, it consisted of nothing more than allowing blood to flow freely out of a patient’s body until the illness was drained from the body (not to mention the patient’s consciousness too). Back when medical professionals were convinced that our bodily fluids housed all the evils of the world, draining a man’s blood was the answer...even if it nearly killed him.
From treating the plague to cases of epilepsy and smallpox, bloodletting was the immediate answer for medieval physicians or “breathing the vein” as it was sometimes referred to. It took until the 20th century for doctors to realize that extreme blood loss tended to correlate with illness and death. This is beyond messed-up and is making me feel faint just thinking about it. No wonder the guy in this picture looks miserable. He has literally filled a bowl with is own blood. Gruesome AF.
14 Eye Infection? Rub Animal Faeces Into Your Peepers
According to ancient Egyptian medicine, it was totally normal to treat any infection (yes, even an eye infection!) by rubbing a mixture of different animal dung samples directly into the wound. (I think I’d literally rather rub salt into wounds for the rest of my days than attempt this even once). So, why animal poop as an early form of antibiotic? It’s not very well-documented, so it’s probably easier to just say this: the Ancient Egyptians were f-- nuts.
Animal feces were also used to create salves and other medicines to help treat oral diseases. Yuck! This usually consisted of a mix of children’s poop, but mainly the dung of lizards, pigs, donkeys, and any other stuff that happened to be laying around. According to Egyptian physicians, pus was a good sign as they believed it to be “therapeutic” in treating an infection. This is like saying gangrene gives your skin a nice “pungent” fragrance.
13 A Fate Worse Than Castration
Yes, we say a fate worse because believe us, you’d be begging to be castrated once you hear what the ancient alternative was. In certain ancient societies, medicine was still seen as something more spiritual than a procedure to nurse someone back to health, and in places like Ancient Assyria and Babylon, castration was a popular spiritual practice of choice to allow men to work as eunuch servants.
Unlike other ancient civilizations at the time, the people of Assyria and Babylon didn’t believe that full-blown castration was necessary for their eunuchs. In other parts of the world, both the p*nis and t*sticles were normally removed. But since Assyrian and Babylonian eunuchs only required the testes to be removed, they were (just in a half-hearted way). Eunuchs in this part of the world had their balls crushed or damaged to destroy the function without removing them entirely from the body. I’m at a loss for words too...
12 A Hangover Cure Fit For A King
If you’re the type of person who thinks a tall glass of tomato juice and a stick of celery is a gross hangover cure, you may want to look away now. When King Charles II woke up feeling a little delicate one morning, doctors snapped into action to provide him with the most bizarre hangover remedy we’ve ever heard. A splash of ice water and a brisk morning walk might have worked for his servants, but this was the King and this called for some royally odd sh*t.
As the story goes, the doctors at Charles’ bedside took the strangely specific amount of 1 pint and 8 ounces of blood. He was then made to swallow a form of toxic metal known as antimony before he was given a series of enemas (so far, so crazy). Apparently, he also had his head shaved, pigeon droppings attached to his feet, prodded with a red hot poker, and took 40 drops of ooze from a skull belonging to a man who “was never buried.” I need a drink...
11 Intentionally Drilling Holes Into The Skull
The medical practice of drilling holes into the head (or ‘Trepanation,’ if that makes you feel any better) is thought to be the oldest surgical procedure ever, dating back to prehistorical times and lasting until as recently as the early 1900’s in some parts of Africa and Polynesia. So, just what the hell were ancient doctors trying to accomplish with this gruesome procedure? Something like a little laying down and an aspirin could treat nowadays—headaches and migraines.
Kooky ancient docs somehow thought that a pesky headache or similar affliction simply required pressure to be relieved between the brain and the skull...by carving a hole in your head. They also used trepanation or ‘trepanning’ for other injuries on the body, believing it would reduce a blood pressure buildup in the affected area. This was the just their professional excuse, though, a common reason why skull drilling was a thing was to “let out evil spirits.” Cuckoo.
10 Using Leeches (For Almost Everything)
What weren't leeches used for back in the day? These little black bloodsuckers were more common in a doctor’s travel bag than bandages, and in fact, medics and patients alike seemed to prefer these gross creatures to actual bandages! As early as Ancient Egypt, leeches have been the go-to medical favorite to cure all kinds of ailments from simple dental issues to skin diseases and abnormalities in your nervous system.
Once health professional realized that the “bloodletting” procedure was killing more people than it saved, leeches waded in as a preferred alternative, and by the 19th century, anyone in Europe with the slightest ailment reached for the nasty little blood-guzzlers. Apart from reducing blood clots and providing a less painful alternative to cutting yourself open, leeches are pretty useless in treating the conditions they claimed to. Why this so-called “treatment” lasted for thousands of years around the world is a mystery.
9 Pick Your Poison
As we’ve established by now, age-old medical practitioners didn’t give a fig about your well-being, so long as they got to use fancy potions that made them feel like some kind of fairytale villain. One of the most horrendous truths about the ancient world is how casual they were about a little thing called poison. Arsenic was used as widely as aspirin once upon a time and was thought to cure all manner of ailments from common skin conditions like psoriasis to syphilis and some forms of cancer in the 1800’s.
At this point in history, arsenic was even used as an ingredient in some types of makeup, so it shouldn’t really surprise us much that doctor’s offices were stocked with the deadly substance. The casual use of prison to treat patients goes even further back than this, though. Consider fun historical fact that the first ever Roman physician Arcagthus who used prison on his patients was nicknamed ‘Carniflex,’ which means executioner. Maybe arsenic should have been renamed ‘Arcagthus’ this whole time.
8 Inducing Vomiting To Rid The Body Of Evil
Kind of like an earlier version of the stomach pump, but more brutal and far less humane, were the use of emetics to induce vomiting. If you’ve consumed near-toxic levels of alcohol or have overdosed on drugs, modern doctors will normally pump your stomach to get rid of any harmful substances. Today, this process is used only in times of emergency, but doctors were a tad lazier in the past (or deranged, depending on your point of view).
Ironically, emetics were drugs that were used to rid the patient’s stomach of toxic materials–when the emetic agents themselves were pretty toxic–and they weren’t exactly used sparingly either. For as long as the 18th to the early 20th century, doctors would prescribe the use of emetics for something as trivial as a stomachache or anything that made patients complain that they felt “under the weather.” Surprise surprise, this dumb-a*s cure killed more than it saved.
7 Removing The Tongue For Speech Disorders
Clearly, medieval Europe hadn’t quite figured out by this stage that you kinda need your tongue to speak because they hacked off bits (and sometimes even the entire tongue) in order to treat patients with speech difficulties. You have to agree with their warped logic, though. Once the tongue is taken out, you certainly won’t have any more speech problems. (I wonder if they treated a slight eye irritation by removing the eyeball too?).
Today, a hemiglossectomy (to use the technical term) is only reserved for use in the most serious oral conditions such as oral cancer. Unfortunately, medics of centuries past played a little faster and loose with tongue removal and believed it to be the best cure for stutters and other speech impediments. Unsurprisingly, many patients died as a result of infections and extreme blood loss. I wonder when the penny finally dropped...
6 Chloroform – The Original Anaesthetic
The kind of trick you see James Bond using to knock out a security guard was actually administered to patients as a form of anesthetic as recently as the mid-19th century. Long before doctors put you under gradually and gently, they shoved a chloroform-soaked rag to your face to ensure you passed out before surgery. As unpleasant and harsh as this all might sound, though, things were so much worse before chloroform came along.
Prior to chloroform being used as an anesthetic, any surgical procedure was a living nightmare. In the centuries leading up to anything close to an effective anesthetic, plant-based narcotics and alcohol were used to take patients to a “better place.” But judging by the various side effects and deaths in early surgery, they were probably better off being hit over the head with a blunt object. Thankfully, chloroform (and all other medieval alternatives) were phased out by the 1950’s.
5 The Horrible Origins Of Teething
Any parent will already tell you that the teething process is not a great time...either for them or the baby. But as painful as the sensation of new teeth coming through must undoubtedly be for newborns, the origins of the phrase “teething” would even give grown men something to cry about. The process of teething as we know it refers to the first teeth gradually piercing through the gums. It’s painful, but at least it’s natural. At least it has been since the 16th century.
Between the late 1500’s right up until the early 1900’s, doctors in France gave mother nature the finger when it came to teething and actually took a scalpel to babies’ gums to somehow speed up the process. Doctors would apparently slice open the gum tissue to allow teeth to come through more easily. Inevitably, this horrific and wholly unnecessary procedure caused countless babies to die from infections and from the sheer trauma of having someone tear you a new gum hole at 6 months old!
4 Mouse Paste (Not Toothpaste) For Toothache
Long before we were given the choice of peppermint, cool mint, and every range of mint you can think of, the Ancient Egyptians had other ideas about what toothpaste should taste of (or specifically, what a toothache-friendly paste should taste of). It was a paste, it was for your teeth, but there was nothing fresh or tingly about it, unless of course it was still alive. Egyptian docs of the past believed that mushed-up mice were the toothache remedy of choice. No, really.
Oh, and it gets worse too. If your toothache happened to be particularly severe, ground-up mouse paste wouldn’t suffice—a whole dead mouse carcass was held to the affected tooth. Yup. Unfortunately for those hoping they could avoid a trip to the dentist, toothache was very common in Ancient Egypt due to sand finding its way into their food and grinding down enamel. We fail to see how a rotting mouse corpse made your mouth feel any better, but hey, we’re not the oral experts here.
3 Lobotomies, Lobotomies Everywhere!
Past doctors would have frowned upon the yoga and motivational quote industry, as their patients would have had plenty of options when it came to dealing with mild anxiety and depression. Unfortunately for patients living a century ago, their mental anguish was often met with the same old prescription from their psycho doctor—a lobotomy. That’s right. The grisly act of driving a steel spike into your brain and taking a portion of it was still thought to be a legit depression cure up until the mid-20th century.
Thankfully, lobotomies are largely non-existent in modern medicine and if similar procedures are carried out, it’s usually only as a last resort for treating patients with severe mental illnesses. It’s scary to think that lobotomies were once seen as a miracle “quick fix” for the slightest mental conditions. Astonishingly, some parents in the U.S. actually booked their troublesome teens in for a quick session in the 1940’s and 50’s as if it were a trip to the dentist!
2 Surgeons Hands Were Cut Off If They Messed Up
Okay, so this one isn’t a medical practice upon a patient, but it was too batsh*t crazy not to include in the list. An insane medical tradition that affected doctors in the ancient world was a particularly harsh form of discipline—the loss of their hand if they botched up a patient’s surgery. Wow. Thank God we live more enlightened times. The worst a modern doctor might face for a similar mistake is a brief suspension from work and feeling plagued by guilt, but this is just kicking someone when they’re down!
In late 1700 BC, King Hammurabi of Mesopotamia introduced a set of harsh and unforgiving laws, one if which included the decree: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Roughly translated to surgeons who screw up? If you break it, you’ve bought it and this usually meant paying with their own limbs. Ancient doctors were understandably horrified by this prospect and many actually preferred to treat patients homeopathically rather than risk botching someone’s surgery.
1 Electroshock Treatment For Impotence
ED is something that has plagued all men at some point in their lives, but even those with the most severe cases would surely never turn to something like this. What the hell is going on with this thing? It actually looks like you could turn men sterile. Still, Victorian doctors seemed to think a routine zap to the tackle could do the trick and help banish impotence in men. Long before c*ck rings, they were c*ck belts, although these don’t look as if they’d treat you too kindly.
Electricity was still a fairly new phenomenon in the late 19th century, but some doctors clearly threw caution (and sanity) to the wind by choosing to turn an embarrassing male problem into a medical experiment. We can understand their thought process—if currents can make a bulb light up, then why not see if this could also light things up in the boudoir. Apparently, these scary-looking contraptions worked for a time (but it was probably less upsetting for men to just be tasered back into action).