Weird Medicine That Harmed More Than Healed

For 2,400 years, patients have believed that doctors were doing good; for 2,300 years, they were wrong, according to historian David Wootton, in Strange Medicine: A Shocking History of Real Medical Practices Through the Ages. Here, the recently published book reveals some wacky treatments once considered cutting-edge.

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Toothaches

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In ancient Egypt, a dead mouse was placed on the tooth of a person in dental distress. In ancient Rome, toothaches were treated by rubbing one’s mouth with a hippopotamus’s left tooth and eating the ashes of a wolf’s head, wrote Pliny the Elder. 

Lice

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One remedy from 13th-century surgeon Jehan Yperman: Smear the person with a paste of mercury, ashes, the spit of a child, and lard. 

Cancer

Serge Bloch for Reader's Digest

In 1880, the medical journal the Lancet published a letter from a doctor that hailed getting struck by lightning as a miracle cure. It cited the story of a farmer hit by a bolt that rendered him unconscious. When he awoke, his cancer was in remission. The writer predicted “frictional electricity” would be a “powerful therapeutic agent in the dispersion of cancerous formations.” 

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Depression

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Nineteenth-century doctors prescribed the “blue pill” for many issues—even Abraham Lincoln was believed to have taken it for “melancholy.” No, it wasn’t Viagra. The pill contained mercury, a potent neurotoxin. Taken two or three times a day, it would have delivered a dose nearly 9,000 times today’s accepted levels. 

Stuttering

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A person stammered because his tongue was too short or incorrectly attached to his mouth, posited French doctor Hervez Chegoin in 1830. He thought only “mechanical means” could fix the issue and did surgeries for it. 

Schizophrenia

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After World War II, psychiatrists gave insulin to plunge a patient with mental illness into a coma and then brought him back. The insulin deprived the brain of fuel, which killed brain cells. This procedure supposedly reduced patients’ hostility and aggression. 


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