Time Period:Early-16th Century to Mid-20th Century
Mercury used to be relatively common to see in the medical world, with some diseases only treated with it and nothing else. It might seem odd to see that today since mercury is a highly toxic chemical that we only use in incredibly small doses if it is used at all. Yet some believed it could be the cure to things like syphilis, a disease primarily caught through sexual transmission. In fact, the prime treatment for syphilis used to be mercury dating back to the 16th Century. It could either be eaten or injected into the body somehow.
Mercury might also be used for several other less serious illnesses too. The infamous explorers, known as Lewis and Clark, were accompanied by several men to help with their expedition. The men had so many pills containing mercury chloride that archeologists are now able to find the exact places they camped on their expedition, simply due to the high mercury content still in the area. The sad part in all of this is that doctors knew by the 18th Century that mercury was toxic, yet STILL gave it to people to treat syphilis up to the 20th Century!! Old medical treatments used like this are sad to see, honestly.
While many old medical treatments might be odd, some of them seem so insane that it is unbelievable people did them. Animal bites used to be a form of medical treatment, which was odd enough. Yet some assumptions of this treatment were weird. It is a true story, somehow, that people in China used to treat genital ulcers with a python bite. To be fair, China used to believe animal bites of various kinds could be used as a sort of therapy. The World Journal of Gastroenterology reports that python bites “were employed externally to treat ulcers on female genitalia.”
There are some tribes that used to partially scrap someone with the teeth of a snake or control a bite very briefly that would pierce the skin. However, these were venomous snakes that had venom they felt could be used to treat diseases. Sometimes, they’d just use the venom itself. This sort of made sense, as the venom might do something. Yet pythons are not venomous, so all you’d be doing is piercing the skin. At that time, this could be bad as it could open the person up for infection. Plus, did they have the snake bite the woman “down there” or somewhere else on her body? One might be significantly more painful!
It is well-known how painful hemorrhoids can be. Some can be so bad that people have to undergo surgery to fix this. In medieval times, physicians came across a very effective method of removing the issue. While it should be noted that some of the most horrific and barbaric medical treatments in history happened during this time, the same could be said about a lot of medieval history. Although this specific method was borrowed from the Greek Physician, Hippocrates.
During the 12th Century, medieval doctors used to treat the most severe hemorrhoids by burning them off. They would use an incredibly hot cautery iron. Yes, they used to stick that hot iron up where the sun does not shine. While this was obviously very painful, the method did remove the hemorrhoids. Since this area does go through a lot of potential damage, it will self-heal from the burns. Today, we use targeted lasers to take them off. Recovery time is remarkably lower in comparison.
Like mercury and chloroform, we clearly know the danger arsenic poses to humans today. Yet we were not initially aware of this many decades ago. This is why for many years, arsenic used to be given to people to help treat things like headaches, syphilis, and other blood disorders. However, it was also used to reduce fevers. This is important to keep in mind, as arsenic often was given for headaches and fevers simply due to the fact that it could reduce them. Naturally, headaches can be caused by many things. It could be muscular or a nervous system issue, sinus problems, and even a fever.
Arsenic happens to be toxic to human beings because it inactivates around 200 enzymes. Most of them go to cellular energy pathways, DNA synthesis, and repair. This inactivation will affect the nervous system and musculoskeletal system. Since fevers and headaches are usually immune system responses to issues, the inactivation of these enzymes will often stop both from happening. It could also clear the sinus cavity too. Of course, this exposure does come with a lot of potential problems such as that whole “death” thing.
To be fair, we do still use bloodletting today in modern medical treatments. However, the most common use is for rare diseases like hemochromatosis and polycythemia in the developed world. It’s also used as alternative medicine in less developed nations as bloodletting is able to starve bacterial pathogens of iron. That slows bacterial growth and could help with infections. Of course, this makes sense as your immune system ends infection. Antibiotics only target infection symptoms. However, bloodletting is one of the old medical treatments that has been done for thousands of years now.
It goes back to Ancient Greece and Egypt. The infamous Greek physician Hippocrates believed the body was made up of four humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. The idea was that the body needed to be in balance, so if you were sick then naturally the body must be out of line. You needed to them reduce something from one of the humors, and blood was often the easiest to remove for obvious reasons. That led to bloodletting being used to treat pretty much everything early on. The reason Hippocrates likely believed in it so much is that this could be effective for some stuff but not for everything.
Reading the above header, you might laugh a bit. Yet it’s true that many physicians used to believe cigarettes could help people with asthma problems. Of course, one would naturally think the worst thing for an asthmatic person would be smoking, but not them. It could be that they were able to partially coat the throat a bit, and offer some aid due to the use of nicotine involved. We did not realize how addictive nicotine was back then, nor did people consider what’s in cigarettes beyond this.
In the 19th and 20th Centuries, smoking was so widely accepted that doctors often smoked in the room while seeing patients quite often. Early cigarettes were a bit harder to use but by the 1920s, menthol was added into most to help with this. Menthol is a very useful thing that could potentially help someone with asthma or sinus issues. Doctors seemed to ignore the idea of using menthol on its own for a while, which resulted in the recommendation of cigarettes.
Today, we know methamphetamines are relatively dangerous to use, especially long-term. We should point out that this is not exactly like the type of meth you might find on the street. That can be made of various substances, which the original is not like. Chemically, they are not the same as recreational meth includes numerous chemicals you can find around your home. To be honest, when the drug was first put on the market, it made sense for companies to market it as they did. Methamphetamines are stimulants that can be powerful for the human central nervous system.
They can be helpful for obesity as the drugs are able to curb appetites. They’re also helpful for narcolepsy as the high they offer is able to give the brain stimulation that will wear off. Once it wears off, you’ll be tired enough to sleep. On top of that, they were once used to help with ADHD-related symptoms often. The issue is that, unlike with other stimulants or even amphetamines, the role of methamphetamines has been reduced due to causing even more problems for humans. Physicians now rarely prescribe medications with this in them due to the likelihood of neurotoxicity and high addiction rates.
Today, we are well aware that radiation and anything associated with it can be toxic to the human body. It is such an issue that we have to handle all radiation usage with extreme caution. Both Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium back in 1898 and spent their entire lives studying radioactive materials. It is due to their sacrifice that we know the effects of radiation on the body. Both Marie and Pierre believed radium could be useful for a lot of things, and they were 100% right about that.
However, neither truly felt it needed to be used outside of specific needs. Yet quacks felt it could be used to cure numerous health complications. In the 1920s, some had the wild idea about adding Radium to drinks. One man named William J.A. Bailey invented RadiThor, which was basically radium dissolved in water. The Harvard drop-out was not a medical doctor but claimed the drink could “cure the living dead” and offer “perpetual sunshine.” He said it could cure impotence, aging, and treat arthritis too! Unsurprisingly, this was all crap. Several even died from radium poisoning.
The Ear Candle has to be one of the craziest things one could ever think to use. While there are many old medical treatments that come off as odd, they can be forgiven usually. This is because there was at least some way to understand why the treatment was in play. Yet a candle in the ear just seems obviously dumb. Usually, a person laid down on their side with one ear up. A candle, often at least 12 inches, was placed inside the ear and lit.
The goal of this was to remove stuff from the ear like debris or other particles. The belief too was that the heat created some type of suction to remove even earwax out of the ear and connected it to the candle. Not only was this almost never effective, but worse, candle wax fell into the ear. This can cause burns and potential ear infections. Beyond that, people could partially lose hearing in the ear the wax fell into as wax build-up would be stuck inside the ear. Leading to impairment.
Trepanning began simple enough, as did many old medical treatments. This happens to be the oldest known surgery humans performed on one another. In fact, it is such an old procedure that it has been traced back to 7,000 years ago in some of the earliest known civilizations. The procedure involves boring or essentially drilling a hole in the skull. Initially, the idea was that you could let any build-up of pressure out this way or even potentially evil spirits that have gathered in there.
It was widely assumed that spirits were the ones behind any mental illnesses or disorders. Some done in Peru were performed for emergency needs. People might be involved in war and could have skull fractures from it. To remove excess bone fragments, trepanation would be done. However, the most common reason was the assumption it could stop migraines, epilepsy, abscesses, blood clots, and much more. It didn’t help at all, and many even died from the surgery.
Imagine someone telling you that they were having surgery soon – not one performed by a regular surgeon but by a psychic person claiming to be capable of healing them. You’d likely want to slap them back to reality. Psychic surgery is a pseudoscientific procedure that is a form of medical fraud based on the illusion that a psychic could access otherworldly beings to heal you. Worst of all, they did this with their bare hands. Often, they used a finger to cut into the person and through sleight of hand, show that the person had lesions or even fake animal parts inside them.
Some psychics would actually really remove a part from a person’s body, whereas others would only cut in but not really remove something. The United States FDA and FTA does not allow this to be performed in the country but it does still happen elsewhere. Originally, it popped up in Brazil and the Philipinnes but it has since fallen out of favor there too. However, in spite of being one of the old medical treatments that have shown zero benefits, it has not been made illegal in either country. It is still legal in most African countries too as well as several South American ones.
Sacrificing yourself to save another seems noble, but not when it comes to medicine. It used to be that people believed a God or Gods were in control of everything. Therefore, in order to get over sickness or a disorder, you needed to sacrifice people or animals to appease them. The same happened to ensure that rain comes or to make famine comes to an end. One very popular thing to do would be to have a priest sacrifice an animal near the person that needed to be “healed.”
If the person never healed from the problem they were going through, it was clear that they must have angered the Gods. Even if a child was the one affected, this would be the assumption. Either that or the Gods were punishing the child in place of a mistake their parent(s) made. If the person did recover, then the Gods must have been appeased. The sacrifice of an animal was performed to honor the God or Goddess that must have been angered.
Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources: