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.
Blood was considered the source of life in many cultures, and it was thought that “bad blood” caused sickness. Draining a body of some of this tainted gore was supposed to cure all sorts of ailments. Poor people received their treatments from barbers with little medical knowledge. Sweeney Todd, anyone?
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?
Humanity’s current medical knowledge is the result of centuries of trial and error. So, at some point, someone thought, “Hey, maybe if I slather some of this poop on my injury, I’ll feel better.” Even more questionable is the use of crocodile dung by Ancient Egyptian women — they used it internally.
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.
People drank the milk for its hypoallergenic properties and bathed in it to soothe irritated skin. While these practices may seem quirky by contemporary standards, donkey milk has made a huge comeback in recent years. You can even purchase donkey milk soap bars from online retailers.
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.
You can imagine how quickly disease spread when the same leeches were used on multiple ailing patients. It’s insane to think that doctors ever thought this was a good idea. Leeches were also frequently used in bloodletting and were preferable to unclean knives.
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.
While drinking your urine can save your life in extreme situations — watch Bear Grylls, and you’ll understand — it’s not a recommended way of improving your health nowadays. When it’s inside of a person’s body, urine is sterile, but once it exits their urethra, it’s contaminated. Besides, while urine contains mostly water and some electrolytes, it also contains uric acids that aren’t stomach-friendly.
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.
This led to the creation of a lot of strange fad diets, but none can outdo the harmfulness and absurdity of the tapeworm diet. Those seeking to lose a few pounds swallowed capsules containing tapeworm eggs. After hatching, the tapeworms caused more problems than they fixed. What a surprise!
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.
It was also thought that a hanged man’s hands had unique therapeutic properties, and immediately after hangings, sick people took turns rubbing the dead man’s hands across their cysts, abrasions and even hemorrhoids. Not only is this unhygienic, but it’s also just gross.
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.
This led to the invention of plague masks and the use of strong, foul odors to “drive away” the “disease in the air.” A stinky animal or piles of excrement placed around the house were thought to help prevent the plague.
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.
In the past, liquid mercury was thought to have life-extending properties. One emperor of China believed in this theory. He eventually died of mercury consumption. His tomb is surrounded by a small river of mercury, preventing archaeologists from excavating farther. It probably looks incredible, though.
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.
After removal, the hole was left open to heal naturally, resulting in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people living their lives with parts of their brains wholly unprotected. While this practice was able to achieve some success in those with symptoms of encephalitis, it could also lead to infection and, eventually, death.
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.
Women were particularly at risk for incense treatments, as it was believed that the uterus was the cause of all of a woman’s illnesses. To remedy an upset uterus, practitioners directed the smoke from incense into the vaginal canal. It seems more harmful than helpful, right?
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.
Local anesthetic — or any pain-relieving medicine — was typically not applied for the procedure, which meant it was excruciatingly painful. Patients that underwent this procedure had large portions of their tongues removed, leading to permanent, wedge-shaped indentations in their tongues. Modern methods are far less barbaric and far less physically scarring.
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.
While this medicine did do the trick, it also resulted in thousands of infant deaths. The syrupy concoction was mostly morphine, a derivative of opium. Mothers were poisoning their children with the stuff.
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.
Ancient Greeks began this practice, probably after noticing that maggots only infested rotting corpses. A person with an oozing, rotting wound was prescribed maggots, which consumed the dying flesh and allowed the body to generate new, healthy tissue. Still, it’s awful to think about someone dumping a bunch of fly larvae onto you while you’re injured.
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.
Herbalists, often associated with the occult, were founts of medicinal knowledge before physicians came about. But when herbs weren’t enough, people turned to magically imbued amulets meant to ward off bad luck. Modern Wiccans and other groups continue to use charms to protect themselves.
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.
It seems preferable to just deal with an achy jaw rather than slather it in dead-rodent funk. The amount of mouse flesh used varied from person to person, with extreme pains requiring the use of an entire mouse or even multiple 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.
By sticking a needle beneath the eye’s lens and lifting the cataract away from the iris, ancient practitioners hoped to improve their patients’ eyesight. But surgical tools weren’t nearly as precise and advanced as they are today, so accidents happened often.
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.
Sure, it’s nice to think that an illness is caused simply by a misalignment of the stars, but astrology has never been proven to help people avoid recurring illnesses. More importantly, a migraine probably doesn’t originate from Jupiter’s position or orbit pattern. Probably.
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.
While that’s enough to creep anyone out, the additional recommendations included stroking, licking and kissing the skull several times before falling asleep. Our ancestors certainly seemed to think that death could help preserve life. These types of macabre practices seem outrageous today, don’t they?
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.”
These humors included blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. They were also associated with four conditions: wet, dry, hot and cold. Physicians once believed that by increasing or decreasing one of these liquids in a person’s body, they could heal any sickness.
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.
Ancient physicians prescribed aloe vera to treat stomach upset, dry skin and joint inflammation. Due to its nutritional content, aloe vera was also used to help sick people regain immune function. It may be weird, but it’s effective.
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.
Hugely popular during the early 20th century were “cure-all” electrical devices. These strange items were advertised as weight-loss machines, muscle-building devices and even the answer to sexual impotence. Men in particular were targeted with ads for electric belts that were supposed to stimulate their, well, manliness. It seems quite shocking by today’s standards.
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.
It’s eerie to realize just how recently the practice of lobotomizing mentally unwell patients was performed. From the 1930s until the late 1960s, young children and adults well into their golden years were forced to undergo lobotomization. Many suffered from worsened conditions. Or died.
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.
Supposedly, these could help women suffering from constipation, asthma, insomnia and even nervousness. While the constipation part makes sense, it’s difficult to understand how a rubber plug inserted into the anus could help with breathing, sleeping or feeling anxious. Perhaps the makers of this device hoped for a full-fledged placebo effect. Still, what were they thinking?
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.
Lighting a candle and placing it in the ear canal was once thought to help pull out debris, toxins and wax. Yet more often than not, ear candling resulted in wax-filled ears and uncomfortably warm inner ears. While this technique is still practiced today in some places, it’s not often recommended.
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?
According to Hippocrates, you eat more bile, of course. Luckily, people tended to shy away from eating human bile, which would’ve necessitated opening up a corpse and scraping out its gallbladder. Instead, they consumed elephant bile, bear bile and ox bile.
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.
So, when people experienced that telltale soreness and itchiness, the response was to take a hot iron and burn every lumpy vein in sight. It’s painful enough to suffer from hemorrhoids. Adding a red-hot iron to one of the most sensitive parts of the body — internally, no less — seems like pure torture.
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.
In the 1920s, Julius Wagner-Jauregg won the Nobel Prize for Medicine by infecting a syphilitic patient with malaria to counteract the effects of the original disease. This type of treatment is known as pyrotherapy because doctors are “fighting fire with fire.” It seems crazy — but if it works, it works!
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.
Modern medical trials have even started using arsenic as a means to help treat leukemia patients. As such, it’s now considered a “medically beneficial poison.” No old lace is required for use, but extreme caution is recommended.
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.
In addition to warts, snail slime was also thought to help with a wide range of dermatological conditions, including acne and cysts. Though this remedy is several centuries old, the effects of snail slime are still being studied today.