Cruel and unusual: history’s most disturbing medical treatments Let's be grateful for how far healthcare has come.

You probably don’t enjoy going to the doctor (who does?), but seeking medical treatment today is worlds better than it was in the past. Can you imagine setting up an appointment about a persistent headache and the doctor prescribing an ice pick to your eye socket?

Of course, as ridiculous as some of these treatments sound, practitioners honestly believed that they were giving patients the best possible care. But that hardly changes the fact that many of these treatments did more harm than good. After reading about history’s most infamous and unusual medical treatments, you’ll be grateful for how far healthcare has come.

Mercury

Woodcut from 1689 shows various methods of syphilis treatment, including mercury fumigation.

Ancient Chinese and Indian people were using mercury before 2000 BC, and scholars have found it in Egyptian tombs dating back to 1500 BC, but the poisonous metal was in medical use all the way up until the 1800s. Mercury was considered a cure-all drug for ailments ranging from syphilis and tuberculosis to constipation.

Even Abraham Lincoln took pills containing mercury to cure his “melancholy.” He only stopped when he linked the pills to his violent rages — hardly an ideal side effect for a man in the middle of a presidential bid.

After some of these infamous mercury pills were discovered in a museum, the Royal Society of Chemistry analyzed Lincoln’s daily dosage, and the results showed they contained up to 120 times the maximum safe limit of mercury intake. Lincoln’s violent rages were indeed very likely a symptom of mercury poisoning, which can also cause insomnia and poor cognitive function. Looking back, mercury pills seem like one heck of a stupid con, and while these ones worked, these killers didn’t.

Bonus scary fact: Cinnabar, the scarlet or brick-colored ore that contains mercury, is still in use today in many Chinese medications.

Hemiglossectomy

Stutterers today go to a speech therapist for help, but in the 18th and 19th centuries, doctors would cut off half the stutterer’s tongue to help him out. Apart from the fact that the procedure was ineffective, patients suffered from terrible pain because of lack of anesthesia. Some even bled to death.

The tapeworm diet

Fortunately, this “easily swallowed,” “sanitized,” and “jar packed” product proved ineffective.

In the perennial battle of will over weight, consumers were finally offered an effective means of weight reduction around the turn of the 20th century – tapeworms! Needless to say, infecting yourself with tapeworms for weight loss is extremely risky (and disgusting).

Bonus scary fact: tapeworms continue to be advertised and sold today. Though now illegal in the US, people can still buy the dangerous remedy in other countries or via the Internet.

Corpse medicine

An old vagrant’s corpse is stuffed with newspaper after being raided for useful organs by two pipe-smoking, wisecracking surgeons.

Medical cannibalism? It’s more likely than you think, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries. Human bones, blood and fat could supposedly treat everything from headaches to epilepsy. “It emerged from homeopathic ideas,” says Noble, who wrote a book about the subject. “It’s ‘like cures like.’ So you eat ground-up skull for pains in the head.”

The Smithsonian has an excellent piece on the subject titled The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine.

Lobotomy

Without a doubt, the lobotomy is one of history’s most horrific medical treatments. Intended to alleviate the distress of the mentally and emotionally ill, the procedure involved hammering an ice pick-like instrument through a patient’s eye socket. The objective was to sever the connections between the frontal lobes of the brain and the thalamus which, at the time, some in the medical community believed was the part of the brain that dealt with emotion.

After years of practicing on cadavers, the first lobotomy was performed on a live patient in 1936. Allegedly, the graphic procedure cured the woman’s depression and sleeplessness. However, lobotomies weren’t successful in the majority of patients. In fact, they often left individuals in a vegetative state and as many as 15% of patients died.

Trepanation

Detail from The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch depicting trepanation (c.1488–1516).

On a somewhat related (and somehow less grizzly) note, trepanation is the practice is just outright drilling holes in your skull to let the bad juju out. This was supposed to cure a whole host of ailments, and the practice is in fact man’s oldest surgical technique — human remains showing the results of trepanation have been found in graves from as far back as 7000 years!

Dead mouse remedy

What’s in the bowl? Do we want to know?

Putting a dead mouse in your mouth to cure an aching tooth might not be the first thing you think to do, but in Ancient Egypt, that was science. If that didn’t work, Ancient Egyptians would mash the mouse up and mix it with other ingredients to create a paste. The dead mouse paste would then be applied to the aching tooth.

Animal poop

Better or worse than dead mice? Many cultures had some variation of this, but the Egyptians’ papyrus texts in particular go on and on about the medical properties of various animals’ feces. Donkey, gazelle, dog, and even insect poop could cure all kinds of maladies and even ward off bad spirits.

Bonus scary fact: The Egyptians believed that dry crocodile dung could be inserted into the vagina as a form of contraception. (On second thought, would you even go near a crocodile pooped vagina…?)

Bloodletting

A surgeon letting blood from a woman’s arm, 18th(?) century painting.

Doctors from ancient Egypt to the 19th-century practiced bloodletting. And, yes, this treatment is exactly what it sounds like: the act of letting out (or draining) blood. In ancient Greece, doctors believed that some patients were sick because they simply had too much blood and getting rid of the excess would cure them. As with many of the other infamous and unusual medical treatments on this list, the loss of blood and added risk of infection from the procedure would frequently simply worsen a patient’s condition.

Dentists got in on the fun as well. They utilized bloodletting as well as leeching to treat patients. In the name of oral hygiene, dentists would apply leeches to either an inflamed area or a vein so the vampire-like critter could suck out the bad blood. Fortunately, dentistry has come a long way since then. However, accidents still do happen, and dental malpractice is often dealt with in a legal setting.

Goat testicle implants

In the early 1900s, the medical quack John Brinkley became one of the wealthiest doctors in America because of his “cure” for impotence, infertility, and other sexual problems. The cure? Implanting goat testicles into a man’s scrotum. Considering that the surgery had no scientific basis whatsoever, the surgery was ineffective and highly dangerous. Many of Brinkley’s patients died.

Babylonian skull cure

The Babylonians were advanced for their time, but they definitely got this one wrong.

In many ancient cultures, diseases and illnesses were considered to be on the level of “curses,” “possessions,” “demons,” and more, simply because of the surrounding culture as well as a medical field that still needed a little bit of scientific evolution. Specifically in Babylonian culture, some ailments were even thought to be “punishments from god” for past mistakes or bad decisions, which would involve some kind of mystical intervention to cure.

According to the History Channel, using teeth grinding as an example of one ailment, “… the doctor would recommend sleeping by a human skull for a week as a way of exorcising the spirit causing you to grind your teeth. To ensure the treatment worked, the tooth-grinder was also instructed to kiss and lick the skull seven times each night.” Well, of course.

***

History is full of quacks and unusual medical treatments that often left the patient worse for the wear or even dead — though it’s important to remember that mistreatment was often not the intention. Doctors and other medical providers were simply doing what they thought was right at the time for the people they wanted to help. Still, the next time you have to be an adult and schedule a doctor’s appointment, you can remember and be grateful for how far modern medicine has come.

So — which of today’s practices do you think will end up on the future’s list of gruesome history? Let us know in the comments.

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[…] a multitude of everyday purposes before it was discovered to be extremely toxic. One such use: a treatment for syphilis. The liquid metal would be poured on (cough) certain extremities, conceiving the phrase “a night […]

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I was recently listening to Marco Polo’s journeys on audio book and he described a medical system somewhere in Asia entirely based on exorcising ghosts – and fraud. The treatments of the “doctors” in this society would all involve the family of the sick handing over expensive food and “good drink” (alochol) so they could party next to the sick person, the scientific basis being that they were doing this vicariously for the ghost plaguing the sick. Marco further described that when they ran out of alcohol, they would simply tell the family that the ghost has additional demands to keep the party going.

Imagine being on your death bed and seeing your family wealth disappearing to frauds – who party it up right in front of you. Is that not disturbing?