Strange Tales of Early Medicine
Are you here for the bloodletting or the mercury exposure? If your doctor asks you that questions, you probably want to run right back out the door! But for people in earlier times, bizarre and dangerous medical procedures were commonly accepted. From releasing “bad blood” to boring holes through people’s skulls, early medicine is full of dozens of absurd, archaic, and downright frightening cures and procedures— just in time for Halloween, here are a few of the weirdest!
Bloodletting is probably one of the best-known historical medical procedures. But did you know this practice can be related back to Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician best known for the Hippocratic Oath on medical ethics? Hippocrates, along with other early influential physicians, believed that the human body was compromised of four basics “humors,” or substances: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. These four humors needed to be perfectly balanced, and it was believed that an imbalance could cause common ailments like fevers. The solution? Simply cut open a vein and let out some of the blood, of course! Obviously, this resulted in plenty of deaths from accidental blood loss. Still, bloodletting remained a common procedure until the 19th century.
A Hole in the Head
If humors weren’t the problem, there was another remedy: trepanation. This practice involves literally drilling a hole through a patient’s skull. This was thought to cure physical or mental illnesses— or release the “inner demon” causing the ailment. Trepanation was frequently used to treat epilepsy and headaches, or as an emergency procedure to remove bone fragments left behind by head wounds. Shockingly, human remains from ancient times show that many people actually survived the trepanation process.
Early medications weren’t much better than medical procedures. To treat common maladies, early physician might have prescribed “corpse medicine.” These elixirs were exactly what they sound like! They might have contained human flesh, blood, or bone. In ancient Rome, the blood often came from the remains of fallen gladiators, while Egyptian tombs were looted in the 12th century for “mummy powder.” In other cases, the blood came from your average criminal. This meant that sick people would line up at executions, hoping to snag some fresh blood. It was believed that consuming the remains of a decreased person would lead to increased vitality and wellbeing. But since disease can easily spread through human blood, it’s likely that corpse medicine did more harm than good.
Finally, dangerous elements like mercury and radium played a frightening role in early medicine. Dating as far back as second-century China, mercury was thought to lead to a variety of benefits. These benefits included immortality and the ability to walk on water. Up until the 20th century, mercury was also considered a cure for sexually transmitted diseases, like syphilis. In some cases, the mercury did fight off the sexually transmitted disease. But unsurprisingly, the patient would usually later die of mercury poisoning.
Like mercury, radium also plays a role in early medicine, and was used until the early 1900s. At a spa in the Czech Republic, for example, patients would soak in irradiated water or inhale radon directly through tubes. At the time, it was known that radium could reduce the size of tumors. So, people assumed that the more radium, the better! As we know today, that definitely isn’t true.
Now that you know about these strange procedures, a bad experience at your doctor’s office might not seem so terrible! But it’s important to remember that medical mistakes and malpractice still occur. These days, though, issues are more likely to be caused negligent or defects, not outdated or dangerous procedures. Whatever the cause, talk to a qualified attorney if you think medical malpractice has occurred.
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