Mad Medicine: 14 Crazy Cures from Ages Past

Many modern alternative medical practices are bizarre and even frightening, and in all fairness, within a century or two historians will likely look back at many of our mainstream treatments and see them as crazy, too. But few contemporary medical ideas are quite as terrifying as those used in ages past, from Ancient Greece to the early 20th century. Torture devices and quackery in the name of health were par for the course from intentional brain damage as a cure for mental illness to giving children heroin for coughs.

Trepanation – Drilling Holes into the Skull

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Got a migraine? Maybe it would feel better if a doctor drilled a hole into your skull – without anesthesia. But probably not.  The process of intentionally punching a hole in the skull – known as trepanation – was once considered the best option for epileptic seizures, mental disorders and head injuries, and involved some of the most amazingly terrifying medical instruments you’ve ever seen. It has been around at least since neolithic times, and some people actually believe that it has a place in modern medicine.

Consumption of Honey-Coated Cadaver

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One man’s death by honey was another man’s health boon for broken bones centuries ago in Arabia, if 16th century Chinese sources are to be believed. The story goes that elderly Arabian men would offer themselves up as sacrifices for the health of others, consuming nothing but honey and even bathing in the sticky substance, eventually putting out nothing but honey as bodily waste and perishing from this all-honey diet. After death, the bodies were placed in stone tombs to steep in even more honey for at least a century, at which point they had become delicious confections ready for black-market purchase and consumption.

Metal Hooks and Back-Door Surgery for Bladder Stones

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Bladder stones are painful enough on their own, especially when they prevent urine from leaving the body. But imagine your doctor telling you that in order to remove them, he’d have to put a rigid metal hook into your urethra to coax them out. Ouch. But if you think that sounds bad, the traditional procedure was much worse: after forcing a patient into a ‘jack-knife’ position, held down by two assistants, the doctor would work the stone toward the entrance of the bladder and then cut it out through the anus.

Curing Coughs with Snail Syrup

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For centuries, one of the best remedies people had for sore throats and coughs was consuming the mucilaginous essence of snails. One doctor wrote in 1728, “They abound with a slimy juice; and are experienced very good in weaknesses and consumption, especially for children and tender constitutions. To make a syrup of snails, take Garden snails, early in the morning while the dew is upon them, one pound; take off their shells; slit them; and with half a pound of sugar, put them in a bag; hang them in a cellar and the syrup will melt and drop through; which keep for use. It possesses in the best manner all the virtues of snails.” But that’s not even the worst of it. Some people would prick a snail to bring forth that slimy, foamy juice and then drop the whole thing into the ear to cure an earache.

Curing Hemorrhoids with Hot Irons

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In the most severe cases of hemorrhoids, draining some of the blood via incision and then cauterizing the wounds is a painful-sounding but effective method used in modern medicine. But back in the day, they didn’t have fancy painkillers and electrical wires or lasers with which to do the surgery. Doctors used a plain old cautery iron to burn those blasted swollen veins into oblivion.

Heroin Cough Syrup for Children

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Heroin is known today as one of the most addictive substances in the world, but few realize that it was actually sold by Bayer as a cough suppressant for children. Scientists believed that it was a non-addictive alternative to morphine, from which it was synthesized, but of course, that was soon proven wrong. Test subjects often said the drug made them feel ‘heroic’, which led to the choice of brand name.  Heroin was seen as a godsend for sufferers of tuberculosis, including children. In 1913, as hospitals teemed with patients miserably addicted to the ‘medicine’, Bayer decided to stop making it.

Bloodletting to Drain Illness

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Ancient physicians theorized that since a woman’s body naturally cleared out “bad humors” through menstruation, drawing blood from the veins of both sexes was a great way to let illness out of the body. Bloodletting was extremely common, and not just for serious ailments: some doctors recommended it for indigestion and even acne. The only real benefit might have been relieving hypertension in certain patients, but that was probably purely accidental and very rare. Bloodletting fell out of favor by the late 19th century.

Icepick to the Brain

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How to cure the mentally ill? Remove their ‘extra emotions’ by cutting out a piece of their brains. Like trepanation, lobotomies were once performed by drilling a hole into the head, but psychiatrist Water Freeman quickly ‘improved’ the procedure by switching to a faster icepick-through-the-eye-socket method. Performed after  rendering the patient unconscious via electric shock, it took only ten minutes, but the results varied wildly, from the successful to the tragic. Its usage declined as effective antipsychotic drugs became available in the 1960s.

Mummy Powder for Health and Home

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The story of mellified man may not be confirmed, but another medicinal usage of carefully prepared human remains is without question. Starting in the 12th century, Arabs – who didn’t consider ancient Egyptians to be there ancestors, and thus thought nothing of it – began grinding up mummies and using the powder for various health ills, both internally and externally, and even household uses. The crudely mummified bodies of peasants, dug out of sand pits, went for a pittance while the embalmed remains of aristocrats fetched a pretty penny.

Malaria as Treatment for Syphilis

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Malaria kills up to three million people per year, and many poor communities must go to great lengths to stop the spread of this mosquito-borne disease. But in the 1920s, one doctor discovered that malaria has an interesting side effect: killing syphilis, a comparably less insidious disease that nonetheless has a 100% fatality rate once it affects the brain. Malarial fevers reach temperatures high enough to kill the bacteria that causes syphilis. While Dr. Julius Wagner-Jauregg won the 1927 Nobel Prize for this discovery, it’s no longer considered a great treatment option, to say the least (but that’s not stopping Dr. Heimlich of the famed Heimlich Maneuver from recommending it as a cure for AIDS.)

Tobacco Smoke Enema

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For a short period in medical history, tobacco was considered a panacea; the addictive and poisonous effects of nicotine were not yet known. The warmth and stimulation provided by tobacco smoke was thought to be a treatment for “apparent death”, so smoke was literally blown up the behinds of recent drowning victims, cholera victims, people near death and often simply as a ‘health tonic’.

Sugar Coma for Schizophrenia

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Like a glucose-induced lobotomy, deliberate insulin comas were designed to change the personalities of people with schizophrenia. Unfortunately, they were usually fatal. In the 1940s, psychiatric clinics (particularly in Germany) would deprive patients’ brains of glucose, the sugar-based fuel that the brain needs to function, and then “re-awaken” the brain with a glucose injection. This process had a tranquillizing effect – because it was causing severe brain damage.

Shocking Cure for Impotence

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If a certain part of the male body isn’t functioning as it should, perhaps a jolt of electricity will get it going. That’s what doctors believed back in the 1800s, when “electrotherapeutics” were a popular cure-all. “It is especially in the genital organs that electricity is truly marvelous. Impotence disappears, strength and desire of youth return, and the man, old before his time, whether by excesses or privations, with the aid of electrical fustigation, can become 15 years younger,” wrote one medical historian. But as shocking as that may seem, modern Israeli scientists believe it’s still a valid idea. Their research has shown that electric shockwaves can induce the growth of blood vessels.

Tapeworm Diet

(image via: museum of quackery)

“Eat! Eat! Eat! And always stay thin!” If you are willing to house a wriggling tapeworm in your bowels, at least. The Tapeworm Diet involved the intentional consumption of parasite eggs in order to maintain a trim figure, due to the fact that the tapeworm gets most of the nourishment you consume. But not only does tapeworm infestation have its own serious health effects, it can also cause abdominal distention – not exactly the look most dieters are going for. While this diet should have died a long time ago, it was recently tossed back into the limelight with an appearance by several would-be tapeworm ingesters on a daytime talk show.

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