Even in our modern times, a trip to the doctor's office is nothing to look forward to. But as recently as a few hundred years ago, the treatments for the most common diseases were very primitive. Some painful, gross. and downright strange cures remained popular for thousands of years. Here are 13 of the worst ones:
1. Medicine made from dead people
Throughout the middle ages, European doctors relied on "mummy powder," made from the crushed remains of actual Egyptian mummies, to treat some of life's most common illnesses. There was also a belief that ground up bones could treat related parts of the body.
Maybe England's King charles II had headaches, because he regularly took "King's Drops" made from crushed skull bones and alcohol. The idea was that a dead person's spirit was the "active ingredient" in these cures.
In case all of the warnings about fish and baby food haven't gotten the message across, mercury is a highly toxic and poisonous element. But in ancient Greece, Persia, and China, taking mercury was believed to extend a person's life.
China's Emperor Qin Shi Huang actually died from ingesting mercury pills. But they kept on being used - especially to treat STDs - for thousands of years.
Cupping involved heating the edge of a glass or wooden cup with fire, then pressing it against a person's skin - usually on their back. The idea is that the cup makes a vacuum that draws blood to the skin's surface, but studies say this is mostly hogwash.
Still, in countries like Iran and China, cupping has been used for thousands of years to treat a variety of conditions like muscle stiffness. Records reveal that this trendy treatment - used by celebrities and athletes like Michael Phelps - may date back to 3,000 B.C.
There are a lot of interesting facts about farts (such as "he who smelt it dealt it") but they're not known for being medicinal. But when the Black Death was terrorizing Europe doctors instructed their patients to collect their farts in a jar.
Explanations for the Bubonic plague mainly involved "evil vapors" that came from the bodies of sick people. Breathing in your own nasty vapors was supposed to keep you safe from the disease.
To be fair, the plague wiped out as much as 60% of Europe's population, so people were willing to try anything.
5. Snake oil
Before it became a term for any kind of fake medicine, actual oil made from vipers was widely used in Europe to treat rheumatism and skin diseases. The Chinese made their own snake oil from a specific breed of water snake.
When Chinese workers built America's railroads, they treated their back pain with snake oil, which led to the term we still use today. Oddly, Chinese snake oil probably did work, because water snakes are full of anti-inflammatory acids.
A clyster is am old-fashioned term for an enema. While these are still used to treat constipation today, throughout history clysters were applied as treatments for pretty much every condition imaginable. To make things worse, the water in the clyster was usually combined with something like coffee, pig brains or honey.
In 18th century France, clysters were a sign of good health, and more health-conscious nobles would have multiple clysters each day. King Louis XIV was said to have taken 2,000 clysters in his lifetime, so I assume he was very healthy.
The cures just get even weirder from now on...
Bear with me here: doctors used to believe that the body relied on four "humors," or liquids, and that an imbalance of the humors caused disease. Having too much yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, or blood was to blame for whatever ailed you.
If the doctor decided you had some "bad blood," they would remove it from your body by cutting your skin or attaching leeches. While bloodletting dates back to ancient Egypt, it lasted well into the 1800s before doctors came to their senses.
Cleaning the dead skin from a wound is important to fight infections. But unless you're in a modern, well-stocked hospital, doctors just aren't up to the task. That's where these creepy-crawlies came in.
You could depend on maggots to eat all of the dead flesh while leaving the healthy skin behind. The patient just had to put up with the bugs while they did their job. This treatment was very popular during the Civil War, and is still used in rare cases today.
Call it brain surgery, 5,000 B.C. style. Archaeologists have found signs of humans drilling holes into each other's skulls in pretty much every major civilization. And patients actually survived these grueling procedures (most of the time).
Primitive doctors may have believed that trepaning relieved pressure, or even evil spirits, from a patient's brain. It may have even actually provided relief for conditions like epilepsy and chronic migraines.
10. Goat testicles
Many of these cures were ancient, but by the time "Dr." John Brinkley suggested swapping human testes with goat testes in the early 1900s, people really should have known better. Brinkley became wealthy after passing himself off as a doctor (despite having no medical training) and performed his signature operation for decades, claiming it cured impotence and made men virile.
Of course, there's no benefit to swapping your testes for goat parts, and a huge number of Brinkley's patients died on the table. Despite his quackery, Brinkley almost became the governor of Kansas.
11. Animal dung
Ancient Egyptian medicine was actually way ahead of its time, and it formed the basis for modern medicine as we know it. But they still had some downright wacky ideas about what was good for you.
Common cures prescribed by Egyptian doctors included moldy bread, horse saliva and dead mice. But animal dung - especially dog, fly, donkey or gazelle dung - was said to be a wonder cure for stomach conditions. While it might boost your gut flora, we wouldn't want to try it.
12. Powder of sympathy
Sir Kenelm Digby lived in an age when nobles were still regularly dueling each other with swords, and he invented his own "cure" for stab wounds that is bound to raise your eyebrows. First, mix earthworms, pig brains, rust, and mummy powder (again with the mummies) into a formula.
Then, rub that formula on the sword that stabbed you. Digby believed that this would in turn treat your wound, through what he called "sympathetic magic." I guess we just have to take his word for it.
13. Cutting teeth
Today "cutting your teeth" is an expression, meaning to get your start at something, but it once had a much more gruesome meaning. In 17th century France, when a baby began teething, surgeons would slice their gums open to let the new teeth pass through.
Instead of realizing babies were fine on their own, the tradition spread across Europe, and even to America. It wasn't until the early 20th century that doctors realized they should just leave well enough alone, and by that time lots of babies had already died.
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