For thousands of years, medicine was intertwined closely with spiritualism and myth. Even in some areas around the world today, the idea of healing is often associated with treatments and practices that to us in the Western world seem like absolute quackery.
Even well into the 20th century, odd and scientifically inaccurate medical practices have claimed to be the closest thing to a cure for maladies ranging from baldness to asthma. Below you’ll find seven of the weirdest medical treatments in the history of medicine. Some of them have their merits, while others are quite insane with little to no scientific backing, but they became popular among doctors and consumers anyway.
Leeches and 'Bloodletting'
The use of leeches to suck blood out of a sick person has been in practice for thousands of years, dating back to ancient Egypt. Egyptian healers believed that sucking a patient’s blood out with leeches could cure fevers and various other maladies. Leeches were also commonly used in medieval Europe.
Even though they are not frequently used today, leeches have made their occasional appearance in modern medicine. They are used to help heal skin grafts, which is a way of treating burns by transferring blood tissue from one part of the body to another. Leeches have the ability to restore blood circulation in blocked veins, and have been used to reattach fingers, ears, and other body parts. Back in 2004, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved leeches as medical devices.
Bloodletting, meanwhile, is the name of the process of removing small quantities of blood from patients. In ancient times, medics believed that the body was governed by “humors,” or bodily fluids that needed to remain in proper balance. Bloodletting was one of the most common medical practices performed by physicians until the 19th century. Today, it’s generally been proven that bloodletting is not safe, and it is not effective in treating diseases.
Tapeworms are a scary thing. Imagine a long, white, living creature coiled up in an organ just eating away at the food you consume.
With that in mind, one of the most misguided diets out there is probably the tapeworm diet. Yes, people have consumed tapeworms before in the hopes of losing weight. One Iowa woman in particular bought a tapeworm on the Internet and ingested it. Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, medical director at the Iowa Department of Public Health, wrote about the incident with warnings about ingesting tapeworms. She called it “extremely risky” and something that “can cause a wide range of undesirable side effects, including rare deaths. Those desiring to lose weight are advised to stick with proven weight loss methods; consuming fewer calories and increasing physical activity.”
In 1949, two doctors actually received a Nobel Prize for Physiology of Medicine for a procedure known as lobotomy, which now has largely been debunked as a harmful method. Lobotomy is a neurosurgical procedure that cuts connections from the prefrontal cortex of the brain by inserting pliers through the eye sockets and essentially jabbing at the brain. It sounds insane, but throughout the mid-1900s, there were some 40,000 lobotomies performed in the U.S. The method was largely heralded by Dr. Walter Freeman, a Yale-trained doctor who performed lobotomies on thousands of patients, often without wearing surgical gloves.
Lobotomies were thought to treat mental disorders in general, from anxiety and depression to hallucinatory disorders. Most of the time, patients were left with neurological, mental, and emotional damage, crippling them for the rest of their lives. Parents worrying about moody teenagers sent their children to undergo lobotomies in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, including John F. Kennedy’s sister, Rosemary. A rebellious teenager, Rosemary didn’t fit in with the rest of her goal-oriented and high-achieving family; her father sent her to receive a lobotomy at age 23, which left her unable to walk or speak for the rest of her life. She lived at an institution largely cut off from the world until she died, and never recovered from the disastrous operation.
Perhaps one of the oldest forms of medical intervention on the human body is what is known as trepanning, or trepanation. It essentially involves drilling a hole into the skull to treat issues like seizures, migraines, and mental disorders, and this practice has been found in prehistoric remains from Neolithic times. Today, people like Bart Hughes still advocate trepanation to reach some higher level of consciousness, though no modern doctors have anything positive to say about the primitive procedure.
Cigarettes For Asthma ‘Cure’
Though it sounds counter-productive, in the 1900s, patients with asthma were often given medicated cigarettes or combustible powders as treatment. Physicians told asthmatic patients to inhale fumes from burning stramonium, lobelia, tobacco, and potash. Of course, it’s long since been decided that smoking anything is probably way more harmful to asthma patients than it is helpful. Cigarettes, in particular, will make your asthma worse.
Urine therapy is sort of what it sounds like: using pee for medicinal or cosmetic purposes. This could involve drinking your own urine or massaging it into your skin. There isn’t much scientific evidence to support urine therapy, but stalwart advocates continue to use it today.
This practice has been used around the world and over the course of thousands of years, dating back to ancient Rome, where people supposedly used urine to brush their teeth. Drinking urine in the morning has also sometimes been associated with yoga or meditation.
Another empty fad that became popular at the beginning of the 20th century was something known as “radioactive water.” In 1903, springs producing naturally hot mineral water were shown to have a lot of radioactivity in them as well. People concluded then that radioactivity was good for you; hot springs began to be advertised as radium spas. At one point, the U.S. surgeon general declared radium a cure for malaria and diarrhea. People thus began to drink and bathe in radioactive water at radium spas. This entire enterprise is now simply called “radioactive quackery,” because we all know by now that using toothpaste doused in radiation is probably not going to make your teeth whiter, nor will it do you any good overall.