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10 Most Bizarre Medical Practices in History

Although medicine is still at best an imperfect science, medical practices took humankind a long and painful journey to evolve into what it is today. With limited knowledge and resources, our ancestors had to make do with what they had. They had to think out of the box to figure out how to treat illnesses, but that didn’t always work. Below are some of the most bizarre medical practices in history.

Bloodletting

Bizarre Medical Practices - Bloodletting

The practice of bloodletting is precisely what it sounds like; it’s the withdrawal of blood to cure illnesses or diseases. The practice dates back to ancient times. Back in history, physicians and doctors believed that most diseases were caused by something in the blood. Therefore, the removal of the blood would fix any problem. Galen, a Greek surgeon, and physician, was the first one to popularize the use of bloodletting to the point that it was the most preferred method in the treatment of most diseases. He theorized that the body is made of four ‘humors’; blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. So he thought the removal of the excess blood would return the balance to the body.

As time passed, more comfortable and more efficient methods were created for this procedure. They drew the blood using a needle from veins or arteries. More terrifyingly, they used a tool called ‘scarificator.’ Scarificators became popular in the 19th century as they were automated. They consisted of rows of steel blades that rotate in a circular motion to puncture the skin at different speeds. Leeches were a less-terrifying option to draw the blood.[1]

Clysters

Bizarre Medical Practices - Clysters

Before the invention of the enemas that we know today, clysters were more commonly used in the 17th century and before, to the 19th century. The clyster syringe was a long metallic tube with a rectal nozzle and a plunger to inject fluids into the anus. They used all kinds of fluids to pump into the body, such as lukewarm water. But one of the weirdest fluids was thinned boar’s bile that helped treat blockage and constipation discomfort. In North America, the indigenous people used tobacco smoke enemas to stimulate respiration. It’s said that clysters were so popular that King Louis XIV used over 2,000 clysters throughout his life as he believed that it would keep him in good health.[2][3]

Dwale

dwale manuscript

Whether it’s general or local, almost every surgery needs some kind of anesthesia. But have you ever wondered what did doctors use before the discovery and development of the anesthesia that we know today? Well, the answer is dwale. Since anesthesia was discovered 150 years ago, doctors had to think of something to render the patient unconscious for the surgery. They made a concoction out of medicinal herbs that were both harmful and harmless at the same time.

The potent dwale consisted of alcohol, bile, hemlock, bryony, lettuce, opium, henbane, and vinegar. What renders dwale fatal and deadly is the hemlock, which was the official poison of the ancient Greek. As little as 1 ml of hemlock juice can be life-threatening and can cause motor paralysis. Also, the high concentration of henbane is enough to kill a child. So even though dwale was successful in putting patients to sleep for surgery, its risks were far more dangerous than the surgery itself and could easily cause death.[4]

Cataract Surgery

Cataract Surgery

Cataract surgery is one of the most commonly performed surgeries in the world with a success rate of over 90% and a low complication rate. In cataract surgery, the lens of the eye is removed and replaced with an artificial lens. The procedure doesn’t take more than 45 minutes and is relatively easy to recover from. In the 5th century, they took a different approach to treat cataract with the lack of knowledge and technology. The method they used was called ‘couching’–which is translated to ‘put to bed’ in French, and it’s still being used to this day in some developing countries such as India.

They did not remove cataracts from the eye; instead, they used a needle to move and dislodge the cataract out of the visual axis, thus improving the vision instantly. However, couching did more harm than good, the lack of aseptic technique and the retained cataractous lens resulted in blindness in most cases. This method was used throughout the Middle ages until they discovered a new way; cataract extraction surgery. They made a large puncture or incision in the eye with a hollow needle then extracted cataracts.[5][6]

The Whale Cure

The Whale Cure

In the late 1890s, people thought that they had finally discovered a cure for rheumatoid arthritis that many suffer from. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks the joints by mistake, causing pain and discomfort. So in the 1890s, a gentleman who was a long-time sufferer of RA found a carcass of a whale laying on a beach in Australia. He was quite the jokester; he decided to jump into the body of the whale, not caring about the smell nor the heat. His friends left him there and waited until he came out 30 hours later. After he emerged from inside, he discovered that he no longer felt any pain from RA. It was theorized that if a person suffering from RA could stay inside a dead whale for 30 hours, they could be cured.[7]

Intentional Malaria Infection

Intentional Malaria Infection

The malaria infection has caused millions of deaths throughout history, yet that didn’t stop people from theorizing that malaria infection can treat advanced syphilis. They thought that syphilis, which is a sexually transmitted disease that’s now curable, could be treated with the fever that the malaria infection causes. It’s one of the strangest practices in medicine that ended up killing the patient.

At the time, a syphilis diagnosis was a death sentence, and desperate times call for desperate measures, so when an Austrian psychiatrist named Dr. Julius Wagner-Jauregg witnessed a case of a woman in psychosis recovering after suffering an infection accompanied by a fever, he decided to replicate the results. He encountered a wounded soldier that was infected with malaria and took a sample of his blood. He injected nine patients with the blood, and six out of them recovered and were able to resume their healthy lives. However, it resulted in the death of a percentage of people.[8]

Children’s Cocaine Tooth Drops

Children’s Cocaine Tooth Drops
Cocaine drops, advertised as a remedy for children’s toothaches in 1890

In the late 1800s and up until the 20th century, the usage of cocaine and drugs that are now considered dangerous was normal. For example, they used heroin to help ease off the symptoms of morphine withdrawal. And coca leaves were used in Coca-Cola up until 1903. But what’s most outrageous was the use of cocaine to help treat children’s toothache.
The first person who suggested the use of cocaine as an anesthetic was Sigmund Freud, an Austrian neurologist. He praised the miraculous benefits of cocaine, suggesting it as a remedy for toothache, sore throat and even as an antidepressant.[9][10]

Lobotomy

Bizarre Medical Practices - Lobotomy

Lobotomy is one of the most brutal and gruesome medical procedures ever to exist. It initially became popular in the mid 20th century as a cure for the mentally ill. The brutality and the violent nature of the procedure didn’t faze families of the mentally ill to have their loved one go through it. Walter Freeman, an American physician, operated on up to 25 patients a day using an ice pick shaped instrument and with no anesthesia. He did it blindly with absolutely no way of knowing what he was cutting and damaging in the brain. Lobotomy was invented in the 1930s after Freeman was intrigued by the idea of separating the frontal lobe from the rest of the brain.

He experimented on dogs and concluded that cutting the nerves between the frontal lobe and the brain left the animals quiet. Freeman and his colleague, Moniz, performed the first surgery. They brought a mentally ill woman and drilled two holes into her skull and pumped alcohol into her frontal cortex. In later surgeries, they cored parts of the brain to severe neural connections. This, of course, caused damage to the brain, resulting in the patients becoming catatonic. After that, the procedure became widely accepted, and it’s still being used to this day.[11][12]

Mercury

Bizarre Medical Practices - Mercury

Using mercury to treat diseases such as syphilis, parasites, and constipation was a common practice since people believed in its healing abilities. But soon after getting treated with mercury, they were faced with its poisoning effects. They couldn’t believe that such a powerful medicine would bring harm to them and instead blamed the poison symptoms on the disease itself. Calomel, which is mercurous chloride, was very popular in the early 1920s.

It was advertised as a purgative, and that it can strengthen and fattens the child. Oblivious to its dangers, parents used it on their babies and children. Babies would soon suffer from the symptoms of mercury poisoning, which includes extreme itching, burning, pain, and eventually, death. Calomel was used for years until the mid 20th century when people figured out that heavy metals are toxic and cannot be used in medicine.[13]

Trepanning

Medical Practices Trepanning

Trepanning is one of the oldest medical practices and dates back to around 7,000 years ago. Different civilizations like the Mayans and Aztecs have used it throughout history. In 1997, while digging up prehistoric burial sites, archaeologists found skeletal remains of five adults from 5,000 to 3,000 BC. Most of the skulls of those remains had been trepanned with a single hole. Similar to lobotomy, trepanning is a procedure in which holes are drilled into the skull. It was done for one of 2 reasons; either to alleviate pressure on the skull or for a more spiritual reason, to give a trapped demon a hole to escape.[14]

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