"He who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea, but he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all."The above statement is an apt analogy for how healers and mendicants of the ancient world used to work. Although many of us must have fantasized about living during the European Renaissance or sailing with the Vikings, at some time or the other, there is an aspect of the ancient world that will completely change your perception about the past―healthcare. If you ever get sent back in time, a single look at the medical practices of the past would have you screaming and begging to get back to the present.
―Sir William Osler (Physician and Professor of Medicine)
As the people of this era were the first to explore various methods of cure for various ailments, experimentation was rampant. Without any source of reference, anything and everything was used in the misguided attempt to heal their patients, often causing more harm than good. The chances of survival were always in doubt, and it was very likely that the medicines for the treatment would include some extremely disgusting ingredients. Here are 19 strange, ancient medical practices, that are sure to leave you a little queasy.
Strange and Scary Ancient Medical Practices
According to ancient medical practitioners, the body was made of four primary substances―yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood―and maintaining a balance between the four was the key to the body's health. Therefore, people suffering from all sorts of ailments were often diagnosed as having too much blood. To cure the problem, the doctor would simply cut a vein and drain some blood out into a bowl. Although such a treatment could easily lead to death with a little carelessness, the practice of bloodletting continued well into the 19th century, with even barbers offering such services along with shaves and haircuts. The treatment was stopped when it was finally proved that it was doing more harm than good. However, in rare cases, controlled bloodletting is still practiced today through the use of leeches.
The role of ancient Sumerian/Babylonian doctors were most often played by priests or exorcists, and as such the cure that they prescribed were based in magic. Often, illnesses were thought to occur due to the possession of spirits. To subdue and expel the spirit, the doctor would ask the patient to sleep along with a human skull for a week. As an additional precaution against the spirit, the patient may also be asked to lick and kiss the skull seven times every night.
Treatment for Hemorrhoids
Before the 12th century, hemorrhoids was thought to be caused because the person was not pious. So if someone was unlucky enough to suffer from this condition, they would be sent to a monastery, where the monks would cure the person by pushing a hot iron rod into the poor fellow's anus. Finally, in the 12th century a Jewish physician studied the condition and questioned the effectiveness of the treatment. He suggested a simpler alternative: A long soak in a warm bath to relieve the pain. This is used widely even today.
Today, most of us know that mercury is highly toxic for our body. However, this element was once considered one of the most effective medication for a wide range of health issues. Mercury was given to patients to drink or to apply on their bodies as an ointment, by the ancient Persians and Greeks. The Chinese used mercury compounds in the belief that it would provide increased vitality and a long life. Till the end of the 19th century, the metal was also used to cure STDs such as syphilis. Unsurprisingly, many patients died from kidney and liver damage caused by mercury poisoning.
In ancient times, consumption of the remains of a dead person was thought to increase vitality. People suffering from headaches, boils, cramps, etc., were often prescribed potions containing human blood, bones, or flesh. The ancient Romans would grind up mummies that they had looted from Egypt, and add their powder to various medication. This gruesome practice continued well into the 17th century, where the British King Charles II was rumored to drink a brew made of alcohol and powdered human skulls.
Ancient Egyptians were known for their well-planned medical systems. However, the cures prescribed by the doctors were very dubious. For instance, lizard blood and dead mice were often used as topical ointments while women were given horse saliva to increase their libido. However, their worst practice was probably the inclusion of animal and human poop in all kinds of medicine. Deer, dog, and donkey dung were especially hailed to protect a person from bad spirits. An old Victorian medical describes a concoction of groundsel, houseleek, goose dung, chicken dung, and boar grease to treat burns.
Bee Venom Treatment
A practice that continues till today, bee venom has been used for hundreds of years to cure issues such as herpes, arthritis, and rheumatism. Doctors would deliberately get honey bees to sting the patient near the nose and mouth, to cure them of many diseases. However, there has been no scientific evidence so far to support this cure.
Usually used for surgical wounds which would not heal, maggot therapy has been used almost throughout human history. The method of treatment involved placing live maggots onto open wounds, which would go on to eat the dead tissue, facilitating healing. The surprising thing is that this treatment is gradually regaining popularity amongst modern doctors.
One of the most controversial medical practices in human history, this treatment method even won its inventor a Nobel Prize. Used for curing problems such as schizophrenia or even anxiety and depression, this treatment was very popular until the 1930s. The treatment method consisted of pushing a needle or a pick through the back of the eye socket, and moving it around to get to the right part of the brain, occasionally resulting in brain damage. By the time the cure was phased out in the 1950s, over 70,000 people had undergone the procedure. A similar procedure called lobectomy is practiced nowadays to treat cases of epilepsy.
Eating Live Fish
In India, a family has been administering live fish to patients suffering from asthma, for more than 150 years. The treatment involves, slipping a small, live fish along with a ball of secret medication down the patient's throat. This has to be followed by a strict diet for the following 45 days. Despite there being no scientific credibility to this treatment, more than half a million people opt for this cure each year.
Cures for Disobedient Children
During the 19th century, people were probably too tired of handling bratty disobedient children. Which is why a number of 'soothing syrups and lozenges' were created to calm the troublesome children. The only problem with the products, however, was that they contained a large amount of narcotics including morphine, chloroform, codeine, heroin, opium, and cannabis. With all these ingredients, the medicine was sure to work, as long as one didn't mind their children being completely doped, or dead from an overdose.
Electrical Cures for Impotence
In the late 19th century, a new phenomenon called 'electricity' was introduced to the common man. Looking at the various applications that electricity could be used for, people naturally assumed that it could be used for problems in the bedroom. At the time, a barrage of electric beds, belts, and other devices were created and advertised as having the ability to return 'male power'. Needless to say, these devices fizzled out soon enough, presumably after the men had some unpleasant electrical experiences in their nether regions.
A very popular form of alternative medicine even today, urine therapy has been practiced by people around the globe for ages. It is believed that drinking your own urine, applying it on your skin, or using urine for enemas could cure an extensive list of ailments, and increase the vitality of the human body. Scientifically, there is no proof that drinking or bathing in urine has any effect, apart from making you smell bad. However, the treatment still has a huge following.
Other Horrible Ancient Medical Treatments
- To extract a tooth without pain, doctors recommended piercing woodlice with a needle and holding them up to the affected tooth.
- A tincture made by boiling live toads in water with butter was a popular remedy for sprains, back pain, and rheumatism in the 17th century.
- Cystic tumors were treated by certain practitioners by rubbing the affected area with the hand of a dead person.
- Curing lethargy was a big issue in the 14th century and many methods of treatment were available, including talking loudly around the patient, pulling their hair and nose, making pigs squeal near the ears, irritating the nose to induce sneezing, and constantly disturbing the patient's sleep.
- In the 1500s, a mixture of treacle, aniseed water, and the pee of young boys was prescribed as a cure for the plague.
- As a remedy to stop children from peeing in bed, a medical text of the 16th century recommended giving the child a rotten mouse to eat.
As we can see, doctors of the past prescribed their patients some very dubious treatments, which we now know to be completely ineffective and in some cases fatally dangerous. Let us hope and pray that none of us have to face any of the above treatments as long as we live. I wish you the best of health.