Just what the doctor ordered? Missteps in medicine from BC to AD.

Our capacity for knowledge and theorising as a species is really quite incredible. From quantum mechanics to cardiology, since the early 20th century we have developed our understanding of the world and all within in it at an unprecedented rate- with technology only further aiding our boundless quest for a deeper, more exact understanding of life on earth and even beyond.

 

But it hasn’t been an entirely smooth ride. From bloodsuckers to extra-moreish cough medicine, here’s 5 treatments that your GP won’t be likely to prescribe you on your next visit!

  1. Bloodletting.

What is it? Bloodletting is the process of bleeding a patient in a controlled manner. Theoretically, it falls in line with Humorism– the system of medicine that proposed the health of an individual depends on their balance of the 4 humours (black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm).

Victorian Leech Jar

How did they do it? Although bloodletting often involved the use of the terrifying sounding ‘Scarificator’, which would puncture veins and arteries in order to extract the blood, the most infamous method involved the use of leeches. Yes, leeches. But not just any leech- discerningly the European Medicinal Leech (Hirudo medicinalis) was preferred due to its saliva containing anesthetic and anticoagulant properties for painless and efficient usage, which is comforting to know.

Did it catch on? Certainly. Millions of these critters were imported from France throughout the 1800’s, and were often kept in pharmacies in rather ornate jars, such as the one pictured. Although bloodletting thankfully is no longer considered an effective treatment in popular medicine (and with Give Blood operating a strict no-leech policy), these slimy suckers still get an outing now and then– primarily to encourage circulation and prohibit clogging in veins. But they won’t be coming to a Boots near you anytime soon.

 

  1. Electroconvulsive Therapy

What is it? Also known as ECT, this shocking treatment induces seizures through the use of electricity in order to displace a wide range of mental disorders, ranging from depression to schizophrenia.

ECT Machine

How did they do it? It requires the use of two electrodes, which are placed on the consenting patient’s head in unilateral (both on one side) or bilateral (one on each side) fashion.  This treatment may be administered regularly- up to 3 times a week in some cases! The exact science is not quite understood- it seems to affect the chemical makeup of the brain and rearrange blood flow. Side effects may include retrograde amnesia, cognitive impairment and, unsurprisingly, headaches.

 

Did it catch on? A relatively new treatment, ECT did not see widespread use until the mid-1900’s, and was particularly popular in the USA. Celebrity recipients of the treatment included Sylvia Plath (to treat depression), Lou Reed (social anxiety) and Yves Saint Laurent (stress). Perhaps most surprising is the fact that it is still in use today- though primarily as a last resort for those not responding to other, less electrifying treatments.

  1. Tobacco

What is it? It’s most popular use now being in cigarettes, the tobacco plant’s leaves have been being cured and distributed for thousands of years. But their introduction to Western Civilization came with Christopher Columbus’s invasion of the Americas in the 15th Century.

What did they do with it? Whilst primarily smoked by the indigenous American people in spiritual ceremonies, the ‘holy herb’ was soon adopted and exploited by Westerners as a both a multi-purpose medicine and a recreational substance.  Tobacco leaves were used as bandages, and even as toothpaste (a practice that still exists in India). Perhaps the most bizarre treatment involving the plant was dubbed the ‘Tobacco Smoke Enema’. Herein, smoke would be administered into the patient’s rectum via a bellows and other assorted pipes to supposedly alleviate the symptoms of near-drowning– giving a whole new meaning to the term ‘smoking area’.

Did it catch on? Unfortunately, cigarette’s continued usage sustains their undefeated reign as the ‘No 1 Preventable Cause of Death’ in the world today. But thankfully the use of tobacco enemas bottomed out in the 19th century, to the relief of lifeguards everywhere.

 

  1. Opium

What is it? Found within the ‘Tears’ of the opium poppy, this infamous substance is harvested through dehydrating the latex from the immature seed pods through a process of scratching and scraping. This latex crucially contains 12% morphine- the analgesic that is a primary component of heroin. It is also used in the production of the slightly more legal painkiller codeine.

Bayer medicine cough heroinWhat did they do with it? Research suggests that the drug was used as far back as 1500 BC for a wide range of questionable purposes. These include as a euphorient in religious ceremony and as ‘proof’ of diving healing power when sneakily used as a painkiller by priests. It has also been recorded as ‘a remedy to prevent excessive crying of children’, which seems a little extreme even for the Ancient Greeks. In Western medicine, the far more potent relative heroin was initially marketed as a cough medicine by the German pharmaceutical company Beyer as a non-addictive substitute for to Morphine- their thought process being that, due to its potency, one would not need as high or as regular a dose in order to experience its beneficial effects.

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and heroin is now one of the most addictive and destructive recreational drugs in the world, with an average death toll of over 100,000 a year.

Did it catch on? Due to the increased use of its more potent relations such as morphine and heroin, the use of opium as a drug is no longer widespread in Western society. Opium poppies are popular amongst hobbyists and gardening enthusiasts due to their varied and vibrant nature, and their seeds are still used as toppings on breads and cakes- which could lead to one failing a drug test after a particularly heavy night on the granary-rolls. But any food comas are unlikely to be as a result of the toppings alone, as you’d have to have eaten a serious load of seeds to feel any morphine-related effects.

 

  1. Couching

What is it? One of the very earliest methods of ophthalmic surgery, dating back to 800 BC, that was used to relieve patients of cataracts, often with less-than-ideal results.

Couching procedure

How did they do it? The eye is pierced by a needle and the clouded lens, afflicted by a cataract, is pushed to the bottom– allowing light to pass through to the pupil once more. Success rates are extremely low, with over 70% of patients then turning blind or developing further recurring problems.

Did it catch on? This archaic technique was widely used until the 19th century, and most likely would have been the procedure used by the occultist and shyster John Taylor on the great composers Handel and Bach- resulting on both of their deaths from the subsequent complications. Whilst the Western world has the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, the procedure is still performed in areas where access to quality healthcare and treatment is prohibited- generally by traditional healers and quacks rather than doctors.

 

So there you have it- 5 bizarre and bewildering remedies that not even a spoonful of sugar could make palatable! 

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