8 shocking medical treatments from the pages of history
It’s hard to imagine in our era of robotic surgeries, evidence-based medicine and genetic testing, but up until a century ago, doctoring meant mostly guesswork and experimentation. Now, these so-called treatments from medicine’s past seem laughable ‘ or downright horrifying. Reading about them will make you grateful to live in a time of modern medicine.
In the first half of the 1900s, doctors smoked as much as their patients. And when lung cancer concerns began to surface, the tobacco industry used doctors to allay any doubts. Camel advertisers handed out cigarettes at medical conferences and conducted surveys, which led to a 1946 ad, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” Ads touted the benefits of smoking for weight control, while menthol cigarettes were suggested for sore throats.
Doctors originally believed ill health was linked to an imbalance between the elements of air, fire, water and earth in the body. This imbalance then led to excess blood. So 3,000 years ago, the Egyptians cut sick peoples’ veins to release blood. Blood letting was even used in the early 1800s, when leeches were applied to suck out blood from inflamed organs. By the mid 19th-century, however, studies exposed the practice as ineffective.
Cocaine was legal until the 1920s and many famous people, from Thomas Edison to Sigmund Freud, were addicted to the stuff. After Freud sent some powder to his friend, Carl Koller, the Viennese surgeon licked it off his finger and noticed his tongue became numb. He experimented with it in the lab and on animals and eventually used it as a local anesthetic during an eye operation in 1884. The ‘medicine’ was widely used by surgeons and dentists for decades.
Touted as a treatment for everything from syphilis to tuberculosis to constipation, mercury was a go-to drug in the 1800s. Abraham Lincoln took mercury-laden blue pills for “melancholy,” but stopped them in 1861 because he believed they were linked to his violent rages. In 2010, the pills were discovered in a museum and analyzed by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The result showed Lincoln’s daily dosage of blue pills contained up to 120 times the maximum limit of mercury intake that the World Health Organization deems safe. Elemental mercury poisoning can cause insomnia, emotional changes and poor cognitive function.
Writing to the well-respected medical journal The Lancet in 1855, a “Dr. A. Allison” of London, England suggested his colleagues investigate the therapeutic effects of lightning. His letter was inspired after a patient’s lip cancer miraculously went into remission. The doctor believed the cure was related to the fact the farmer had been struck by lightning while plowing his land. The doctor believed “frictional electricity” might “disperse” cancer cells, thus impeding growth.
Today, some alternative and complementary health providers promote electromagnetic therapy to treat cancer, but there is no scientific evidence behind the treatment according to the Canadian Cancer Society.
Used to treat mental health issues from schizophrenia to depression, the lobotomy was popularized in the 1940s. The surgery severed the connection between the frontal lobes to the rest of the brain. The frontal lobes are engaged when we exercise will power and think abstractly or creatively, and it was thought mental illness was caused by a faulty connection between the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain. Tens of thousands of patients underwent the surgery in North America, including John F. Kennedy’s sister Rosemary, who was lobotomized at 23 to treat her rebelliousness. While the results of lobotomies varied widely, many suffered devastating consequences. Rosemary Kennedy, for example, was left unable to speak or control bodily functions. In the 1950s, anti-psychotic medicines came on the market and largely replaced the lobotomy, though the last one was performed in 1967.
Speaking to the sexism of the times, “hysteria” was first thought to be an affliction sourced in the womb, and therefore one that only affected women. In the 15th century, a physician or midwife was instructed to massage a woman to orgasm to cure her anxiety, insomnia, irrationality or nervousness. The treatment was recommended for widows and those who lived “chaste lives.” Doctors at the time didn’t think women could possibly have orgasms, however, so they called the climaxes “paroxysms.”
By the 1800s, doctors were still performing the pelvic massages, but complained of sore and fatigued hands. Thus, mechanical vibrators were invented. Apparently, even asinine ideas can lead to useful discoveries.
Fredrich Bayer, the merchant who founded the pharmaceutical giant we know today as Bayer AG, sold Heroin in a syrup form beginning in 1898. Heroin was prescribed to treat insomnia, pain and coughs and, ironically, morphine addiction. It only took a few years, however, for doctors to realize that heroin was highly addictive, even more so than its morphine predecessor. After many addicts died due to heroin drastically slowing down their heart and breathing, the drug was banned in the 1920s.