By Trisha Malhotra
While the future of medicine looks exciting, the same cannot be said about the past. Medical treatments have had their fair share of historical goof-ups, a lot of which are noteworthy. From cutting open a vein to cure a cough to using liquid mercury as a healing elixir, addressing the medical bungles of the past can help shine a light on how far we’ve come. Here are the most outrageous medical treatments in history.
1. Bloodletting for sore throats
What probably began with the ancient Sumerians and was carried on by the Greek and Roman empires, was the strange practice of ‘balancing bodily fluids’ by draining the blood of a patient. Bloodletting has a weird logic behind it. The idea is to bring bodily fluids into harmony by cutting open a vein and letting out the ‘bad blood.’ Physicians of the time like Galen and Hippocrates believed that the human body was composed of four humors- black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm. To maintain good health, these needed to be in balance.
With this guiding philosophy, medical practitioners strongly believed for thousands of years, that those with an ailment had an overabundance of blood that needed to be let out to restore them back to health. While the risk of dying through blood loss persisted, bloodletting continued to be prescribed as a sound medical treatment well into the 19th Century. From treating a sore throat to healing symptoms of the plague, bloodletting was the preferred solution, with some barbers even offering it along with their shaving and haircut services.
2. Mercury as an elixir
Mercury is widely known to be the silvery liquid in old-school thermometers. But it was used for much more in the past. This element, with its toxic properties, was a commonly used elixir, and also a topical medicine by ancient Persians. Chinese alchemists of the second Century even labeled mercury ‘quicksilver’ while red mercury sulfide was considered as a means of increasing one’s vitality and lifespan. According to Chinese healers from the time, consuming a noxious brew of sulfur, mercury, and arsenic would help patients gain eternal life along with the ability to walk on water.
One of the most famous casualties of this practice was Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang who was claimed to have died from ingesting mercury pills meant to make him immortal. Following the Renaissance until the 20th Century, mercury continues to be utilized as a medicine for sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis. Many patients have been found to have perished from heavy metal poisoning.
3. Trepanation for a headache
To put it gently, Trepanation is the practice of drilling holes into the skulls of patients as a means of curing them. Dating back 7000 years, civilizations around the world have engaged in this form of surgery making it one of humanity’s oldest and most macabre medical treatments. Over 1500 trepanned skulls have been dug up across the world, spanning Scandinavia in Europe to China, North America, and Peru in South America.
According to researchers, this practice might have first been developed as a means of warding off evil spirits that had been believed to possess the mentally ill or the sick. If this theory holds true, trepanning surprisingly stuck around and was adopted by surgeons as a legitimate way to treat conditions like blood clots, abscesses, headaches, and epilepsy. Evidence shows that some patients survived trepanation, but much isn’t known regarding the extent of medical complications that followed.
4. Cannibalism as a cure
If you experienced muscle cramps, stomach ulcers, or persistent headaches, in 17th Century England, your local physician would have prescribed an elixir containing human flesh, bone, or blood. Cannibalism was trendy. King Charles, the ruler at the time, was known to enjoy a local brew of crushed human skulls and alcohol. For hundreds of years, corpse medicine was a common prescription. The Romans were of the belief that the blood of Gladiators could heal epilepsy.
These cannibalistic cures were assumed to contain magical qualities. Through consuming the remains of a dead person, part of the spirit could also be ingested, which was thought to result in increased wellbeing. Accordingly, skull fragments were used to cure headaches, and human fat was taken to heal muscle cramps. Sickly individuals were even known to have attended public executions in the hopes of being able to get a cup of blood from a freshly killed person.