The history of medicine is filled with wild stories of bizarre healing methods and medical treatments that revolve around pain and death. Despite the goodwill and honest attempts of many doctors and scientists throughout the years to find the most humane treatment and healing process for human pain and disease the results have been extremely painful and harmful, in some cases even worse than the initial health problem. Here are 25 examples of some of the craziest medical treatments in history. Let’s just say that it’s good to live in modern times.
Clysters for a Better Quality of Life
A clyster is what people living in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries called an enema. There’s nothing wrong with enemas of course, as they are widely used today by those who have chronic constipation, but the problem here is the ingredients in a clyster before the twentieth century: warm water mixed with salt, baking soda, soap, coffee, bran, chamomile, or even honey(!) were some of the most popular ingredients and for some strange reason members of the upper classes loved it. It is believed that France’s Louis XIV was a huge fan of clysters and had more than two thousand throughout his lifetime.
The Dolphin Therapy
In Peru and a few other places, it is still believed that if a pregnant woman is touched by a dolphin, the fetus’s neuronal development will be dramatically improved. This dolphin “therapy” is widely suggested in Peru and pregnant women from all over the world who are seduced by this medical “theory” travel there to stimulate their babies’ brains inside the womb. It is claimed the dolphin’s high-frequency sounds increase and develop the baby’s neuronal abilities. This sounds like the ideal scenario for a Christopher Nolan or John Carpenter film.
Moldy Bread Was Supposed to Be an Effective Painkiller
In ancient China and Greece, moldy bread was pressed against wounds to prevent infection. In Egypt also, crusts of moldy wheat bread were applied to pustular scalp infections and “medicinal earth” was dispensed for its curative properties. These tactics were believed to honor the spirits or the gods responsible for illness and suffering who in good faith were supposed to leave the patient alone. Score!
Snail Syrup Used for Sore Throat and Earache
It might sound unbelievable to us today with all the medically approved syrups available on the market, but one of the best medical treatments for centuries for all those who suffered from sore throats and coughs was consuming the mucilaginous essence of snails. Actually, some people were so satisfied with the results that they would prick a snail to bring forth the slimy, foamy juice and then drop the whole thing into the ear to cure an earache.
Dog Poop for No More Sore Throats
In The Popularization of Medicine, 1650–1850, written by British historian Roy Porter, who mainly focused on the history of medicine, we learn that at some point doctors came up with the “brilliant” idea of prescribing to sore throat sufferers a medicine that included, among other things, something called “album graecum,” which in reality was dried dog poop. Talk about medicine going bad, anyone?
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Scorpions Used to Cure Sexual Diseases
Most of us usually get jittery at the mere thought of being in the same room with a scorpion, but in many villages in the Lopburi province near Bangkok people use wine fermented with scorpions to cure conditions like sexual impotence. According to local traditions it is believed that scorpions help in the treatment of a number of diseases, usually sexual ones, and they are particularly popular among the male population. Admittedly, the worse part about this one is that there are people who still believe and practice such medical treatments in 2014.
Smoking Could Supposedly Heal Asthma
Okay, so do you want to hear something funny? Way before all these anti-smoking ads on television and the great anti-tobacco crusade there were tons of pro-smoking ads. It might sound totally absurd but back in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth the inhalation of fumes from burning tobacco was considered one of the most ideal treatments for asthma, without any successful results of course. When scientists finally discovered the catastrophic effects of nicotine to the human organism the treatment went down as one of the most ludicrous ever.
Mummy Powder Was the Aspirin of the Arabic World
Back in the twelfth century, Arabs had conquered most of North Africa, including Egypt, and it was then that they began grinding up mummies so they could use the powder for medical reasons. They used the powder either internally or externally, and its usage was so frequent and general that it could be applied for anything from a regular headache to more serious conditions such as stomach ulcers and muscle pain.
Ecstasy Was Suggested for Manic-Depressive Patients
During the late ‘60s and early ‘70s the motto “Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” had such a profound impact on Western society that even those empirically minded people we call scientists got swept up in the new cultural trend. There’s no other explanation as to why some decorated psychiatrists were suggesting the use of ecstasy—a drug that literally cost the lives of thousands of young men and women, especially in the ‘90s—for psychotherapy.
Sheep Liver Was Antiquity’s Equivalent of X-rays in Mesopotamia
Who needs blood tests, CT scans, X-rays, and other such “nonsense” when a sheep’s liver can tell you all you need to know about your patient’s condition? In Mesopotamia, a few thousand years ago, the liver was considered the ultimate source of life and local practitioners believed that a sacrificed sheep’s liver could show them what their patient suffered from. Based on this belief they decided the “proper” method to treat their clients.
Crocodile Dung for Birth Control
Another shocking medical “advancement” comes once again from ancient Egypt. Dried crocodile dung was very expensive to find and the men who could afford it bought it for women to insert into their vaginas, believing that it would soften as it reached their normal body temperature to form an impenetrable barrier. Naturally, instead of a successful birth control the only thing they ended up with were serious infections in the sensitive area, which often led to death or other diseases.
Bloodletting “Forced” Illness to Drop Out of the Body
Ancient physicians in Greece, Egypt, and other parts of the world believed that drawing blood straight from the veins was a great way to instantly get rid of illness. It was highly recommended, especially for indigestion and acne, but the only real benefit was discovered many centuries later when it appeared to relieve (rarely) hypertension in certain patients. The strangest, yet most impressive thing about bloodletting, however, seems to be that even though it started being practiced in antiquity, doctors only finally stopped using it in the late nineteenth century.
Paraffin Wax Used Against Aging
If you thought that cosmetic surgery and stuff like Botox were modern inventions then think again. Back in the nineteenth century a respectable number of Western doctors used paraffin injections to smooth out wrinkles and make the person look younger. Additionally, paraffin was also injected into older women’s breasts in an attempt to make them look firm again but after they noticed the painful consequences (also known as paraffinomas) the procedure caused, they gradually stopped this unusual method.
Mercury Was an Ultimate Medicine
Believe it or not something as dangerous as mercury is was once considered the most effective treatment for pretty much everything from syphilis to tuberculosis, depression to migraines; simply put mercury was the “hottest” medicine in the nineteenth century. Even Abraham Lincoln took mercury-laden blue pills for his episodes of depression but stopped them in 1861 because he noticed that they were linked to his violent rages.
For the record, in 2010 the blue pills he took were discovered in a museum and analyzed by the Royal Society of Chemistry. It was found that they could cause insomnia, mood changes, and poor cognitive function, which means the president was spot on!
Heroin Syrup for Bad Cough and Insomnia
Friedrich Bayer, the legendary merchant and founder of what would become Bayer AG, a gigantic German chemical and pharmaceutical company with a revenue of 40 billion euro ($50 billion), started his professional medical career by selling heroin in a syrup form in 1898. Heroin syrup was prescribed to treat coughs and other things such as insomnia and back pain, but as you can imagine it was found to be highly addictive.
Dead Mouse Paste for Tooth Pain
The ancient Egyptians are known for contributing a lot of things to civilization but the cure for toothache just isn’t one of them. Why? Well in ancient Egypt, just by mashing and blending a dead mouse with other ingredients and putting this “special” paste in your mouth (JUST GROSS) your tooth pain was supposed to be relieved. Needless to say, many users ended up dying from other more serious diseases caused by the dead mouse’s dirty body.
Goat Testicles: The “Ultimate” Solution for Male Impotence
John Brinkley, one of the greatest con artists in twentieth-century medical history, became one of the richest people in America by promising to cure male impotence by surgically implanting goat testicles into a man’s scrotum. Of course the whole thing turned out to be a tasteless, dangerous joke with no scientific merit whatsoever and cost the lives of many poor men who trusted this clown.
Cannibalism Was the Answer to Muscle Cramps
In case a strong male who had a tough job for a living suffered from muscle cramps, persistent headaches, or stomach ulcers in ancient Rome and Egypt the local physician usually prescribed an elixir containing human flesh, blood, and bone. No, we are not kidding you. There was a so-called corpse medicine that was used frequently and has been recorded in many writings.
The Romans in particular were probably the biggest fans of this disturbing medical treatment and they believed that the blood of fallen gladiators could cure epilepsy. This led to many a filthy, sneaky merchant collecting and selling the blood of the deceased gladiators and becoming rich.
A “Sugar Coma” Can Save You From Schizophrenia
There was a time, even during the twentieth century, when people who suffered from severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, were treated worse than animals and that’s not an exaggeration. A patient with heavy depression or schizophrenia would most likely have a lobotomy. But if he or she was lucky enough they could get away with a “milder” treatment such as an insulin coma.
Despite the high risks, which caused numerous deaths, insulin coma was rapidly used throughout Europe and many specialized units were built for the procedure. Needless to say that along with a lobotomy and several other inhumane but now debunked medical treatments; the so-called sugar coma was just another terrible idea that gave psychiatry a bad name.
Malaria Supposedly Treated Syphilis
To begin with and to be historically and scientifically accurate, malaria can indeed kill syphilis through malarial fever, which reaches temperatures high enough to kill the bacteria that causes syphilis. Also, the doctor who came up with this discovery, Dr. Julius Wagner-Jauregg, won the 1927 Nobel Prize for Medicine for this “breakthrough,” but in time scientists realized that saving a patient from one disease only so that another can kill him isn’t much of an accomplishment.
Healing Hemorrhoids with Hot Irons
Thanks to modern medicine there are many ways to handle severe cases of hemorrhoids that don’t involve much pain, but unfortunately for our ancestors things weren’t as ideal. Back in the day, there weren’t any effective painkillers or high-tech lasers to get rid of hemorrhoids surgically. All the doctors had was a plain cautery iron to burn those swollen veins into oblivion and need I remind you, anesthesia was a medical unknown at this point.
A Lobotomy for Various Mental Illnesses
Of course this totally barbaric, hideous, and unsuccessful medical method couldn’t be absent from our list. A lobotomy, which was still practiced just until a few decades ago in many countries, consisted of the cutting or scraping away of most of the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex, the anterior part of the frontal lobes of the brain. This results in the total transformation of the patient into a human plant, and even more disturbing, the procedure’s developer, António Egas Moniz, won a Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine in 1949 for the “discovery of the therapeutic value of leucotomy in certain psychoses.”
The “Powder of Sympathy”
Back in early modern Europe (the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) fencing was the most popular manly activity but unfortunately it caused many serious injuries and often death to its practitioners. However, thanks to Sir Kenelm Digby and his inane medicine named “Powder of Sympathy” the problem was supposed to be solved. How? Apparently if the fencer applied this ointment to his sword, which was a powder made of earthworms, pigs’ brains, rust, and bits of mummified corpses, it would help his opponent’s wound to heal through a strange process that Digby called “sympathetic magic.” The strangest thing of all, however, is that some people were stupid enough to buy this crap.
Hemiglossectomy Was the Cure for Stuttering
This brutal medical treatment is still in use today in extreme cases such as oral cancer where part of the tongue has to be removed in order to save the patient’s life. Of course, the operation includes general anesthesia and a very experienced team of doctors who know what they are doing and no, don’t take any of this for granted. If you were a stutterer in the eighteenth century and were seeking a cure for this condition, the doctors often cut off half your tongue without anesthesia and without knowing what they were really doing. If you were lucky enough not to die from bleeding you realized that your problem was “gone” simply because you couldn’t speak anymore.
Trepanation “Saved” You From Headaches
Having migraines, epileptic seizures, mental disorders, or any kind of head injury that caused you pain or to act bizarrely could be a damn serious thing a few centuries ago. According to the ‘’experts” back then, having a doctor drill a hole into your skull (remember, these were the days of no anesthesia) was the ultimate solution for your issue because let’s be realistic here—what’s the best way to end pain? Why, more pain of course!