There’s no question that today’s medical science is more advanced than ever before. While there’s still plenty to be discovered, you’re certainly better off seeing any modern doctor than you would’ve been hundreds—or even decades—ago.
Just take one look at these common medical treatments back in the day and you’ll see how lucky you are to be living in modern times! If you’re afraid of going to the doctor now, you would have been really terrified back then…
1. Poop paste: If you thought the Black Plague was bad enough, its “cure” was even worse. Human feces would be mixed with flower roots and tree resin and rubbed into the lymph nodes of groins and armpits. It was disgusting, and it only infected sufferers with other illnesses.
2. Insulin shock therapy: Psychiatrist Manfred Sakel invented the procedure of injecting huge doses of insulin into patients suffering from schizophrenia in 1927. Psychiatric hospitals adopted this method all throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and it was known to send people into comas for weeks.
3. Trepanning: Trepanation, which is still practiced today, is the process by which doctors drill a hole into a patient’s head. In medieval times, it was seen as a legitimate way to cure mental illnesses, though doctors didn’t practice sterilizing their instruments!
4. Cough syrup made from heroin: As recently as the early-20th century, heroin was seen as an effective substitute for morphine—and a less-addictive one at that! Worse yet, cough syrup made out of the harmful drug was actually designed for children.
5. Crushed emeralds: Not only is the thought of eating precious stones painful, but can you imagine how expensive it would be? Yet if you were sick (and wealthy) enough, you could grind down some emeralds and make a potent potion by mixing them with water or bread.
6. Urine baths: In the Middle Ages, many Europeans thought urine was a kind of panacea, and they believed that bathing in urine several times a day would treat all sorts of symptoms. Some even recommended drinking a glass or two daily to prevent diseases.
7. Treacle: This might not sound as disgusting as some other cures since it’s made from sugar, but the trick to this 14th-century method was that it had to be aged at least 10 years. The supposed payoff, however, was pretty great: a cure for the Black Plague!
8. Rubbing the body with a chicken: Known as the “Vicary Method” after the 16th-century London surgeon who developed it, Thomas Vicary, this process required a live chicken’s rear end to be plucked. Then it would be strapped to a sick person’s lymph nodes!
9. Bloodletting: It was believed well into the 15th century that, by cutting a sick person’s blood vessels and releasing a small amount of blood, you could heal all sorts of ailments. As it turns out, this was only effective against hypertension. Even then, there are other, less-painful treatments…
10. Using hot irons to cauterize hemorrhoids: In fairness, many modern hemorrhoid treatments are still painful, but at least anesthetics are usually involved. In the old days, however, doctors might’ve cauterized the hemorrhoid with a hot iron. Ouch!
11. Tobacco smoke enemas: Tobacco originated in the Americas for trading and ceremonial purposes, but when the English brought it back to Europe, they found another use for it: as an enema. It would treat ailments such as gut pain, the common cold, and even drowsiness. Talk about blowing smoke up your… well… you know!
12. Sympathy powdering: Let’s say you were wounded in a sword fight, which was not uncommon in medieval times. Your wound wouldn’t just be treated directly. Doctors would also apply a powder to the sword that did the slicing and pray that it would help the wound heal. Obviously, it did not.
13. Mercury: Today, it’s widely known that mercury is extremely deadly. In ancient Greece, however, it was commonly used as an antiseptic, while in ancient China, it was thought to extend one’s lifespan. Even up until the 20th century, people thought it cured syphilis!
14. Mouse paste: If you had a toothache in ancient Egypt, you’d be treated with an ointment made from a crushed, dead mouse that was applied directly to the problematic tooth. Perhaps it worked because it distracted you from your toothache…
15. Tongue removal: Hemiglossectomy—or the practice of removing one’s tongue—was used as recently as the 19th century to treat stuttering. Of course, this method would often force people to lose their ability to speak entirely. Problem solved!
16. Dwale: This primitive anesthetic—made out of lettuce, hemlock, briony, bile, and even opium—was used in England between 1200 and 1500 to put people into a deep sleep before surgery. It worked… albeit so well that patients sometimes never woke up. Whoops.
17. Inversion traction: Hippocrates may be known for the oath sworn by doctors to this day, but as a doctor himself, his practices were questionable. For example, if a patient was experiencing joint or back pain, he’d hang them upside down and stretch their spines with rope!
18. Snake oil: A “snake oil salesman” has become a colloquial term for those who hawk bogus products, but did you know it’s rooted in fact? During the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, Chinese laborers sold the substance as a cure for arthritis.
19. Metal catheter: If you had syphilis in the 14th century, you were in luck. There was a treatment involving a urinary catheter to unblock your bladder. The only problem? It was made of metal… and it had to be inserted directly into the bladder through your urethra.
20. Vin Mariani: Named after Angelo Mariani, the French chemist who developed it in 1863, this mix of coca leaves and Bordeaux wine was seen as a cure-all. It also paved the way to an even more popular product from coca leaves: cocaine!
As horrifying as these outdated medical practices are, you should remember that doctors of days past didn’t have the luxury of the knowledge we have now. That’s why it’s always so important to value science!
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