We weren't always so lucky to be able to go to the doctor, get a checkup, a prescription for antibiotics and call it a day. Throughout history, people have come up with some truly strange, and sometimes scary, medical treatments that we're glad have faded away, thank to improvements in science and technology.
Here are five crazy medical treatments from the past that will have you feeling grateful for modern medicine.
1. Tapeworms for Weight Loss
Yes, you read that correctly: In the early 1900s, the tapeworm diet was advertised as an easy and quick way to lose weight.
All you would have to do is consume a tapeworm (usually in a pill form). The tapeworm would then take up residence in the person's intestines where it would soak up and feed on the nutrients from the food consumed by that person. This would result in substantial (and fast) weight loss.
Once the person reached their goal weight, they were then told to take an anti-parasitic drug that would kill off the tapeworms and leave them with their new, thinner body.
It didn't always work out that way, though. Tapeworms can cause extremely dangerous illnesses and side effects including vomiting, diarrhea, meningitis, abdominal pain, rectal bleeding, epilepsy, headaches and more. Many of these side effects can be fatal.
Bloodletting is one of the oldest treatments on this list – there's evidence that people have been doing this for over 3,000 years.
In the past, many medical doctors believed that diseases, illness and death were caused by "bad blood," or the overabundance of blood in the system. Thus, bloodletting was invented to "let out" the bad blood or the excess blood in hopes of healing the patient. This would be done either through leeches or actual cutting and "bleeding" the patient.
This was a very standard practice during medieval times, but it did continue for hundreds of years following, too.
Unlike bloodletting, lobotomy isn't in the too distant past.
With roots beginning in Europe in the 1930s, the American lobotomy craze can be traced to 1936. In 1936, a psychiatrist named Walter Jackson Freeman II performed a lobotomy on a housewife diagnosed with mental illness. From there, this procedure would be performed thousands of times on those with mental illnesses, along with many women and children deemed unruly.
So, what is a lobotomy? Doctors drill into a person's skull to access the brain. Then, the surgeon would essentially blindly cut ligaments and connections in the brain. This would severely affect the patients, changing their personality, physical abilities – and often killing them.
Eventually, the "ice pick" lobotomy (also called a transorbital lobotomy) was invented. This variation involved sticking a modified ice pick through the eye socket of the patient in order to access the brain.
It's estimated that between 40,000 and 50,000 lobotomies were performed in the United States between the 1930s and the late 1960s. The procedure peaked in the 1940s and '50s, with thousands of people affected by this treatment.
Yes, you read this one correctly! The hard drug heroin was often used and advertised as a treatment for coughs, as well as an alternative to morphine.
Heroin was first isolated from morphine in the late 1800s in order to create an alternative drug for pain relief that would be less addictive than the highly addictive morphine. Heroin was actually commercially produced by Bayer, the major pharmaceutical company, and added to many cough medicines and "children's soothing syrups" until it was made an illegal drug in the United States.
5. Weasel Testicles
In the years between 500 and 100 AD, it was believed that wearing amulets that contained dried weasel testicles was an effective form of warding off pregnancy. Women would often tie weasel testicles around their leg during sex as a form of birth control.
This is ineffective, sure, but compared to other forms of birth control from throughout history (including drinking mercury), it was pretty tame!
- BBC: History's Weirdest Fad Diets
- History: A Brief History of Bloodletting
- Psych Central: The Surprising History of the Lobotomy
- LiveScience: Lobotomy Defined
- University of Arizona: Heroin Origin and History
- Global Citizen: So, Women Used to Use Weasel Testicles, Lysol, and Mercury for Birth Control
About the Author
Elliot Walsh holds a B.S in Cell and Developmental Biology and a B.A in English Literature from the University of Rochester. He's worked in multiple academic research labs, at a pharmaceutical company, as a TA for chemistry, and as a tutor in STEM subjects. He's currently working full-time as a content writer and editor.