Medicine in the 21st century is the stuff of science fiction. Things like: lab-grown body parts, robots that help perform surgeries, and lasers – lots of lasers. Only it’s real, and saving lives.
Medicine back in the day wasn’t as, well, modern. Nor was it sanitary, and it often wasn’t even helpful. Sometimes it was downright terrifying. But you can be the judge.
Python Bile to Treat Genital Ulcers
Animal bile was once used therapeutically in China to treat a number of ailments. According to the World Journal of Gastroenterology, python bile was “employed externally to treat ulcers of the external female genitalia.” Less clear: who caught the snake.
Elephant Bile to Treat Bad Breath
Who needs breath mints when you’ve got a bottle of elephant bile lying around? Ancient Chinese physicians and pharmacists believed that elephant bile, diluted with water, could alleviate halitosis. We imagine it would have tasted better as a milkshake.
Cocaine for Depression
Sigmund Freud is cherished for his contributions to psychology. He's less revered for incessantly prescribing cocaine to his patients. Not that he was alone. A number of 19th century doctors championed the use of cocaine to treat a range of ailments, from depression to migraines to toothaches.
Bloodletting (and Leeching)
One of the oldest medical practices around, bloodletting involves draining blood from patients, via leeches and/or terrifying metallic instruments like a spring-loaded lancet.
Snail Slime to Treat Warts
The University of Oxford explains that snails would do their slime walk over a wart, someone would stab the snail to death (with a thorn, typically), and then while the snail withered away and died, so too would the wart. Who knew it was so easy?
Treating Hemorrhoids With Hot Irons
Forget the sitz bath. Medieval manuscripts reveal that 12th century surgeons would treat severe hemorrhoids by burning them away with a cautery iron — because they could.
Trepanning — Drilling Holes Into Your Skull
Ever feel like your head hurts so badly it’s going to explode? While that’s entirely unlikely, there was a time when doctors would literally drill a hole into your skull to alleviate severe cranial pressure. Archaeological evidence suggests many people survived the procedure. Nevertheless, today’s doctors aren’t sold on the idea.
Heroin Cough Syrup for Kids
Bayer is mostly associated with aspirin these days. But in the 1920s, the German drug giant advertised heroin as a cough remedy for children. Which sounds wrong, until you realize Bayer’s parent company helped the Nazis exterminate millions of Jews. So in the scheme of things, what’s a little heroin?
Malaria to Treat Syphilis
Treating one disease by knowingly giving patients another incredibly deadly one sounds insane. But that's exactly what Austrian physician Julius Wagner-Jauregg did in the 1920s: he discovered that malaria-induced fevers could help treat syphilis. He even won the Nobel Prize for his efforts. Seriously.
Of course, considering the fact that malaria can kill you, a large number of patients died in the process. Which is why doctors no longer subscribe to the method.
Urine to Whiten Your Teeth
Tired of paying for toothpaste? You could take inspiration from the ancient Romans and brush your teeth with ammonia-rich urine.
According to Smithsonian, Roman physicians (and poets) believed pee — which is free, last we checked — could leave your teeth pearly white.
Arsenic to Treat Fevers and Headaches
If a bartender ever asks you to pick your poison, don’t ask for arsenic. The drug is highly toxic, and doesn’t come on tap. Yet for centuries it was used to treat myriad conditions, including fevers, headaches, syphilis, and blood diseases.
- Hemorrhoids: Mackinney Collection of Medieval Medical Illustrations
- Cocaine: 1885 advertisement of cocaine for dental pain in America
- Bloodletting: The Burns Archive
- Heroine Cough Syrup: Bayer