10 Bizarre Medical Treatments in History

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When you think, “medical treatments through history,” you probably think of some nightmarish stuff — bloodletting, shock therapy, and more. But as gross or absurd as some of the following medical practices of “bygone” days may seem, like fashion, what goes around comes around. Some of these seemingly archaic treatments have made a comeback in recent years, as science has caught up with what the ancients knew all along.

10. Maggot Debridement Therapy (MDT)

Maggot Debridement Therapy was approved by the FDA in 2004.

Photo credit: National Institutes of Health

The use of maggots to heal wounds dates to antiquity, and was extensively used until around the mid-20th century, but when antibiotics emerged, maggot treatments were forgotten. Well, they’re back! The FDA approved maggots for use in medical treatments in 2004. The “debridement” part comes into play when these wormlike creatures feast on an infected area of skin, secreting enzymes and crawling around. This process breaks down the dead tissue, disinfects the wound, and speeds healing. Therapists will apply anywhere from a dozen or so to several hundred medicinal maggots to a wound, then seal the area of treatment with gauze for a few days. The process can be repeated multiple times if necessary. Advocates have used the infection-devouring therapy to heal everything from ulcers and gangrene to burns and skin cancers.


9. Leeches

Leeches were approved as a medical treatment by the FDA in 2004.

Photo credit: © Rustamir/Dreamstime.com

As with maggots, the FDA has approved leaches as a “live medical device.” It’s believed Egyptians first used these bloodsuckers to cure what ailed them thousands of years ago. Doctors now use leeches — known as hirudotherapy — following microsurgery and reconstructive surgery, as their saliva contains dozens of different proteins that help numb pain and reduce swelling. And specialized “leech therapists” use leeches to help treat pain and to improve their patients’ vitality. Even Hollywood stars such as Demi Moore have touted the benefits of leech therapy for maintaining their appearance.


8. Clysters

Clysters, the forerunner to enemas, were used for a wide variety of ailments.

Photo credit: CCA-SA 1.0

You probably know “clysters” by another name: enemas. Though this cringe-inducing practice goes back to ancient times, the use of this special clyster syringe — essentially, a rectal nozzle and plunger that propelled a concoction of warm water, salt, baking soda, soap and sometimes coffee, herbs and honey — peaked in popularity during the 1600s to 1800s. While enemas do have a legitimate GI-oriented purpose, these predecessor clysters were first used by the wealthy for many discomforts or annoyances, including asthma, fevers, allergies, colds and a sluggish sex drive. King Louis XIV was an enthusiastic recipient; during his reign, the French monarch often received three or four clysters a day and often conferred with advisers during the process.


7. Snake Oil

Snake oil, as it turns out, has some unique healthful properties.
This word has become synonymous with shady salespeople selling questionable “wonder cures” that amount to nothing more than medical quackery. But there IS something to snake oil. For centuries, the Chinese have used snake oil as a folk remedy, primarily to cure joint pain. Chinese immigrants in the 19th century likely introduced the practice in the U.S. It took some time for scientists to confirm what the Chinese have known for generations; the oil of a specific snake — the Chinese water snake — contains omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to reduced inflammation, blood pressure, cholesterol and depression as well as heightened cognitive abilities. If you think the salesmen peddling these wares got a bum rap, think again. Sure, some traveling the circuit may have been offering the real deal, but many more were probably peddling little more than rattlesnake oil — omega 3s not included.


6. Radioactive Quackery

Radium was used in everything from toothpaste to lotions in the early 20th century.
During the early 20th century, at the height of those popular pilgrimages to healing mineral springs, it was found these miracle waters contained radon gas (thanks to the presence of radium in the ground where the water came from). This finding resulted in a whole new category of dangerous medical quackery. Soon, there were advocates proclaiming radiation as a cure-all for conditions ranging from diarrhea to skin lesions and neuralgia. Dr. C.G. Davis went so far as to tell the American Journal of Clinical Medicine that radioactivity was not only a cure for disease but “prevents insanity, rouses noble emotions, retards old age, and creates a splendid youthful joyous life.” Businesses started to hock wares like the “Revigator,” a device that injected radon into the drinking water. Shoppers in the early 20th century could go to their local store and return with a bag full of radium-containing goods — radioactive lotions for their face, salves for their body, toothpaste to brush on their pearly whites and radium-laced chocolate bars to savor. Some of these types of products, such as a fridge deodorizer that reportedly used radiation to destroy odors, have persisted as recently as the 1980s, despite our knowledge of radium’s side effects (vomiting, infection, bleeding, cancers, neurological disorders, oh, and death).


5. Powder of Sympathy

A paste made of earthworms, ground corpses and other nasty stuff was thought to be able to cure wounds suffered in battle.

Photo credit: © Dmytro Abramov/Dreamstime.com

In a twist on the common rationale behind most medical treatments, this paste was applied not to the site of the injury or wound itself, but instead to the weapon that caused the wound. As such, the Powder of Sympathy used what’s called “sympathetic magic.” This practice was used mostly in the 17th century, thanks to the promotion of Englishman Sir Kenelm Digby. As for the ingredients, it’s said to have contained a mix of ground earthworms, pig brains, rust and mummified corpses.


4. Insulin Coma Therapy

Insulin shock therapy was a popular treatment for schizophrenia.

Insulin coma therapy in the early 1950s.

While working in Vienna in the 1920s, a young doctor, Manfred Sakel, noted that drug addicts and psychotic patients who fell into insulin-induced comas or convulsions brought on by a hypoglycemic crisis awoke with improvements in behavior and personality. The psychoses seemed to disappear. The urge for drugs seemed to have vanished. Feeling he was on to something, Sakel began injecting insulin into patients to send their blood sugar levels plummeting to dangerous levels, inducing a comatose state. Incredibly, the practice became widespread in the U.S. and other countries, especially in the treatment of schizophrenia. Even noted mathematician John Nash (of A Beautiful Mind fame) received six weeks of ICT treatment in the early 1960s, around the time the practice fell out of favor. It’s estimated that up to 10 percent of patients who had this dangerous state forced upon them never woke up.


3. Urine Therapy

Urine therapy is an ancient practice that still has many devotees.

Photo credit: © Edward Bartel/Dreamstime.com

In medieval Europe, doctors would closely analyze urine — smelling and even tasting it — to diagnose their patients. But it’s one thing to use the liquid as a diagnostic tool, and another to bathe, slather or drink it as a cure for what ails you. Yet many before us, from the ancient Chinese to Egyptians to Indians to Aztecs, would drink or apply urine to the body to prevent illness, beautify the skin, clean wounds and cure cancer and other illnesses like strep throat. To this day, advocates around the world swear by shots of the natural liquid, claiming that its mix of vitamins, minerals and proteins like iron and zinc help boost sex drive and energy levels, and ease the symptoms of illnesses as common as the cold and as serious as cancer.


2. Trepanation

Trepanation is one of the oldest surgical procedures in the world.
This primitive brain surgery could well be one of the world’s oldest medical practices — as well as among the most invasive of procedures. Trepanning comes from the Greek word for “bore,” but this method of drilling into the skull to remove pieces of bone or tissue as a means of relieving the pressure said to be responsible for headaches, epilepsy, mental disorders and other diseases can be traced back to the Stone Age. Tribes of the past (and some remote groups of the present) also believed that evil spirits could cause physical ailments, and that the only way to free the spirits was to puncture the skull and allow them to escape. Though these wounds often healed, you can still see skulls bearing cross-hatchings and borings firsthand at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum. You also don’t have to visit a remote tribe to see the practice in action; there are devoted advocates today who believe trepanation can improve mental clarity and energy levels. What’s more, these enthusiasts do the boring themselves — with only the assistance of local anesthetic and an electronic drill. Doctors obviously don’t recommend trying this at home, given the danger of infection or brain damage.


1. Ice Pick Lobotomies

Dr. Walter Freeman performed some 2,500 ice pick lobotomies in his career.

Dr. Walter Freeman performs an ice pick lobotomy in the early 1950s.

For starters, even the colloquial name for this procedure — ice pick lobotomy — had “bad idea” written all over it. Although Dr. Walter Freeman II did not invent the concept of the lobotomy, he thought he could do “faster” and “easier” when it came to the procedure. The 10-minute transorbital lobotomy he debuted in 1946 involved not a drill, but an ice pick-like instrument shoved above the eyeball through the orbit and into the frontal lobe of the brain. Always a showman, Freeman traveled the country in his “lobotomobile,” demonstrating the procedure to medical professionals who would sometimes lose their lunch or pass out. Freeman got to the point where, with one ice pick in each hand, he would pierce the instruments above both eyes simultaneously. Freeman performed some 2,500 of these procedures through the years. An unsettling number of disenchanted housewives (suffering from conditions like postpartum depression) are listed among Freeman’s patients, as well as “unruly children” — the youngest patient was 4 years old. With the rise of medications such as Thorazine to treat mental illnesses, as well as the dangers associated with this practice, the ice pick lobotomy fell out of favor. Freeman himself was banned from doing the procedure after his final subject died following a lobotomy in 1967. Yet Freeman swore by the practice until his death in 1972, visiting former patients as a testament that his treatment had been a success.

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Michelle Leach's love of writing has taken her to Sydney, Australia, London, U.K. and other exotic locations like Grand Island, Neb., and Clio, Mich. She has developed pieces for TV and radio stations, PR departments, newspapers and magazines. A graduate of Northwestern University and Lake Forest College (also in Illinois) she enjoys running marathons and likes to say when not writing, she’s running — but she tries not to mix the two activities.