7 Insane Vintage Medical Treatments Doctors Actually Used

RealClear Staff


Medicine. It is one of the cornerstones of modern civilization. It is constantly changing and evolving. 

As the TV show 'Grey's Anatomy' tells us, "In the practice of medicine, change is inevitable. New surgical techniques are created, procedures are updated, levels are increased. Innovation is everything. Nothing remains the same for long. We either adapt to change or we get left behind."

Medicine used to be a lot more dangerous, with many strange practices. 

Here are 7 of the craziest medical treatments from history!

7. Mercury

Mercury has been around for thousands of years. It is a fascinating shiny, silvery element that is highly toxic to humans. 

Unfortunately, for centuries, Mercury was used to treat anything and everything.  From scrapes and bruises to constipation, Mercury was thought to be curative.

Mercury, as we now know, is extremely poisonous and shouldn't be handled by just anyone!

6. Sheep Liver

In ancient Mesopotamia doctors supposedly made judgments about their patients' illnesses not by inspecting said patient, but by examining the livers of sacrificed sheep

Almost like reading someone's palm to tell their fortune, the liver was thought to be the source of human blood, and hence the source of life itself. Why sheep livers were so important, as opposed to other animals, is unknown.

5. Arsenic

Arsenic is one of the most notorious poisons around, but for centuries it was used as a medicine.

During the ancient Greek times until the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, a number of arsenic compounds were used as medicines, including arsphenamine for syphilis and as an antibiotic. Hippocrates used the arsenic to treat ulcers, and Dioscorides used it as a depilatory.

4. Boar Bile Enemas

Enemas in ancient and medieval times were performed by devices called clysters. A clyster was a long metal tube with a cup on the end.

Fluids would then be introduced into the colon by a series of pumping actions, and boar’s bile was one of the most common fluids used in old-timey enemas.

3. Heroin

Heroin as a cough suppressant was a popular remedy in the 1800's. 
While it did stop the coughing, it is also a hugely addictive and destructive drug, obviously.

Heroin was actually originally developed by Bayer, the aspirin makers. That is some medical irony right there.


2. Bloodletting

Oh, bloodletting. The classic and archetypal medical practice has become synonymous with medieval times and "quack" doctors. 

Doctors from ancient times believed that the body was ruled by “humors,” which referred to certain fluids found in the body: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. These 4 fluids were said to influence a person’s health, personality, and even profession. 

In the Middle Ages, blood— excess blood in particular was often seen as the cause of nearly all illnesses and bad “humors.” So, doctors would let large quantities of blood out of the patient’s body to “cure” them of their ailments. The physician would literally open up a vein using a knife and allow blood to drain from the body, eeek!

1. Lobotomy

Yes, lobotomies were once used as a legitimate "medical" treatment.  

A lobotomy consists of cutting or scraping away most of the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex, the anterior part of the frontal lobes of the brain. Lobotomies were very popular the first half of the 20th century, and were said to be a "cure" for almost any mental illness, no matter how minor.

The most famous lobotomy occurred when Joseph Kennedy, father of President JFK, took his 23 year old daughter Rosemary for a lobotomy without even telling his wife/ Rosemary's mother. It was a complete failure, and she could not walk or speak intelligibly ever again. 

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