Weird Ways People Used to Treat Common Maladies
Nowadays, if you have a headache, treatment is as easy as swallowing a few anti-inflammatory, over-the-counter medicines like aspirin or ibuprofen. But pain relief wasn't always so quick and easy for our ancestors. Many doctors throughout the past employed some questionable treatments, most of which would be unthinkable to us today. From removing pieces of the skull or brain to consuming tonics made of urine and dung, here are some of the weirdest ways people used to treat common maladies.
People have been "releasing" blood from their bodies since Ancient Egypt rose from the sands and fertile river valleys. Using a sharp tool to slice open a blood vessel, physicians bloodlet patients who were suffering from fevers, headaches or pretty much any illness.
It's hard to imagine anyone using dung to help themselves feel better, but ancient practitioners used feces-based ointments and solutions to treat patients. Modern doctors use fecal bacteria to perform fecal transplants that can help with certain illnesses. So, how did things go down the toilet like this?
Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about donkey milk and some of its perceived beneficial effects way back before the common era. Ancient Romans expounded upon this information, and donkey milk continued to be used to treat mild skin irritations and digestive troubles until the 20th century.
Leeches were common physicians’ tools in the past. Surprisingly, they’re still used to help with some medical procedures that require improved blood flow to a specific area of the body. Of course, these leeches are sterilized before use, which is quite different from the swamp critters gathered and used by ancient practitioners.
What is it about biological waste that’s so attractive to healers and physicians? In addition to fecal ointments and treatments, people used to drink human and animal urine to help treat everything from headaches to arthritis.
Having a little extra cushion used to be a sign of wealth and prosperity. Women with large hips and voluptuous figures were seen as more attractive than thinner women. But the "ideal woman" changes from century to century, and in the early 1900s, fat was out and thin was in.
In the past, anyone looking to achieve a longer, healthier life could try using the remains of long-passed humans or animals. Ground-up mummies, aged and honeyed corpses, powdered skulls, distilled brains and even fresh blood from a downed Gladiator have all been used to treat various maladies.
The Black Death could’ve easily wiped out all of Europe. It very nearly did. In the 1300s, bubonic plague spread via infected fleas and the ship-rats that carried them. It decimated between 30% and 60% of the entire European population. People went crazy trying to find a cure or a way to keep themselves from contracting the illness.
The dangers of mercury weren't fully understood until somewhat recently, and mercury was used to manufacture thermometers until about 2001. This rare element is exceptionally toxic, even in small doses. Once absorbed, the body never gets rid of it, which is why many nutritionists recommend limiting your intake of mercury-rich fish like tuna.
Most people need a trepanning treatment just about as much as they need a hole in the head. Considered one of humanity's earliest forms of surgery, trepanning involved using sharp, ice pick-like tools to remove a portion of a person's skull.
Incense is still used today in spiritual ceremonies and rituals. Consumers often use incense to make their homes smell better, but in the past, incense was typically used as an internal medicine rather than an air freshener. Incense "treated" swollen gums, headaches and — somewhat counterintuitively — asthma.
Speech impediments such as stuttering or lisping are treated with therapy, and in extreme cases, surgery. Doctors of the past skipped the speech therapy treatment and went directly for the surgical "cure," which often included cutting the tongue.
Let's face it — children can drive you batty. Thousands of products have been released within the last 150 years that were explicitly designed to give weary mothers some rest from tiresome children. One such invention was colloquially referred to as "soothing syrup," and it was meant to quiet and calm babies and small children.
Just as leeches are still used today to help with specific medical treatments, maggots occasionally find their way into modern medicine to help those with infected wounds. Again, the larvae used today are hyper-sterile and unlikely to cause or spread disease.
Magic cures have been around for just about as long as people have. Before the first tendrils of modern science and medicine began working their way up through the ages, people relied on their religions and spirituality for healing. For many, this meant seeking help from shamans, alchemists and self-proclaimed wizards and witches.
Toothaches can be a real pain. Luckily, modern-day medicine affords many people the chance to use topical analgesics and professional dental treatments to help with tooth pain. Our ancestors weren't so fortunate. When they suffered from mouth pain, they were prescribed pastes made of dead mice.
As we age, our eyesight worsens. Some people even develop cataracts, which are milky coverings over the irises that can lead to outright blindness. Modern procedures are very successful in removing cataracts, and this is only due to thousands of years of wonky surgical practices that left thousands of patients completely blind.
Before the rise and growth of medical knowledge, people often turned to the skies and the stars for remedies to whatever ailed them. Planets were associated with specific biological functions of parts of the body. Physicians compared their patients’ symptoms with astrological charts to determine both the cause of illness and the recommended treatment.
Human skulls weren't only administered in the form of powders or elixirs. They were also recommended whole. Ancient Babylonians had an exciting cure for nighttime bruxism — also known as teeth-grinding. They advised afflicted people to sleep with human skulls — preferably one from a deceased relative — for one week.
Balancing the Humors
The same Greek guy who spread the word about donkey milk — Hippocrates was his name, and medical info was his game — also created a theory about human sickness. His opinion was considered scientific fact for about 2,000 years. Called humorism, this theory purported that all human illness resulted from an imbalance of internal, biological "humors."
The properties of aloe vera are multifaceted. While most people associate aloe vera with sunburns, this spiny plant is capable of so much more, and our ancient ancestors knew that. Modern people probably wouldn't chew some aloe vera to relieve a headache or fever, but just a few hundred years ago, people were doing exactly that.
When electricity entered the lives of the public in the late 1800s, the fabric of society rippled and changed. Electric products were available in catalogs, and they varied greatly in their intended usage, effectiveness and safety.
If you don't like the brain you have, why not exchange it for a different one? Or, even better, remove the parts causing you trouble. This is kind of how lobotomies got started. Physicians knew that mental disorders originated from the brain, so beneath the skull and into the gray matter they went — en masse.
Who would’ve thought that a modern-day sex toy started out as a medical product for women? The early 1900s were rife with dangerous cure-alls and devices, and these "tubular dilators" don't look all that comfortable — or safe.
Pretty much everyone knows that ears can build up the gunk that we call earwax. In the same vein, most people know that candles are typically made of wax. But "candling the ear" is an ancient practice that combines too much wax and too much fire for comfort.
So, here's where things get pretty disgusting. Remember Hippocrates? Well, his theory of bodily humors is partially responsible for thousands of people ingesting bile. The icky green substance is produced by the gallbladder to help digest foods and absorb fats. And when your bile humor is out of balance, what do you do?
Hemorrhoids can definitely require some preparation and time to heal. Soothing medicated ointments are the way to go for most people, but this wasn't true of our ancestors. Their access to advanced medicines was — shall we say — limited.
Fighting one disease with another seems like a fairly modern idea. Hey, Brad Pitt did it in World War Z, so why wouldn't it work in the real world? Ancient medical practitioners arrived at this conclusion without Pitt's helpful inspiration.
Malaria may have been used to treat syphilis, but did you know that arsenic was once used to treat both syphilis and malaria? Arsenic was also used to reduce joint inflammation, help with swelling caused by diabetes and improve skin conditions. It may seem odd to use a toxic chemical to treat disease, but it wasn't strange to people too long ago.
Warts can be bothersome even though they're not very dangerous. Today, most doctors freeze warts, causing them to shrivel or fall off. In the past, the cure for warts was rubbing a slug or snail on your wart. Yep — snail slime was the official cure for warty digits.