That Old Time Medicine

Medical techniques and treatments are continuously evolving. From ancient times until the advent of modern science-based healthcare, the practice of medicine was often more offensive or dangerous than the condition being treated.

BY: Cuyler Gibbons and Sara Smola


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Hair “Pomade”
While not technically an illness, for those in ancient (and perhaps current) times, male pattern baldness was a dire crisis. Hippocrates, a Greek physician, known as the father of medicine, attempted to stop his hair from falling out by concocting a potion consisting of spices, opium, beetroot and pigeon droppings that was meant to be slathered over the balding spots. Not surprisingly, he was left disappointed when the repugnant mixture did nothing but befoul his scalp. Notable historical figure Julius Caesar is also said to have tried to hide his hair loss (his vanity perhaps proving a fatal distraction), at first with a sovereign comb-over. Then, at the suggestion of Cleopatra, he used a mix reminiscent of Hippocrates’s, employing ground mice, bear grease and horse teeth. The mixture was both as foul and effective as the Greek physician’s, leaving Caesar with nothing but a laurel wreath to cover his head.

This powerful opiate drug ruled the Victorian era—it was cheap (a boon to the working class) and, like many of the “remedies” of the time, doctors prescribed it for a host of often unrelated ailments—insomnia, pain relief, headaches, menstrual cramps and tuberculosis. Eventually, the drug reached the upper echelon of society where women used it to recreate the “tuberculosis look”—a coveted pale and sickly complexion. Laudanum was also a rumored recreational choice for poets like Lord Byron, John Keats and Percy Shelley. Highly addictive, the drug still finds limited, though tightly regulated use today in the treatment of pain relief and withdrawal from other drugs like heroin.

Arsenic can be found among the pages of many murder mysteries with a reputation for being the go-to chemical for poisoners. However, before the truth about the toxic substance came about, it was used as medicine (and as a cosmetic for women to keep their complexions pale), specifically targeting malaria and syphilis, as well as an early form of chemotherapy. When used in small doses, it was believed to kill off cancerous cells and other bacteria—a bit of intuition with a grain of truth since the toxin was poisonous to cancer cells as well.



Leeches have been used for over 2,000 years in the practice of bloodletting. Ironically, this ancient and rather crude practice is making something of a comeback today. Before modern science intervened, bloodletting was used for nearly any illness—from acne to plague to indigestion. Drawing blood from already weakened patients was of course usually exactly the wrong course of action, and was often the proximate cause of death. Nowadays however, leeches are considered an affordable form of treatment after amputation and reattachment. After reattachment, the blood pools and causes the reattached body part, like a finger, to swell up with blood. The finger needs to be drained—but not too quickly or you risk permanent amputation with no chance of reattachment. Because of a leech’s ability to suck blood slowly, there’s a higher chance the reattachment will be successful.

Tongue “Reductions”
Did the cat get your tongue? For those with a stuttering speech impediment, what better way to cure a stutter than by cutting out a segment of the stutterer’s tongue? At least that was the theory. Removing part of the tongue, without the use of aesthesia, might have sometimes been “successful,” but was also like throwing the baby out with the bathwater since in many cases, the stutterer was never to stutter or utter a word again, as there was a high risk of patients bleeding to death. Which could also explain why the same “healing treatment” was also used as a form of torture in the Middle Ages. Ironically, a hemiglossectomy, or surgical removal of part of the tongue, is still used today for those with oral cancer (but done with surgical precision and including proper sedatives and pain medication for the patient).

Powder of Sympathy
Back in the 17th century, Sir Kenelm Digby was credited for discovering a powder concoction that was said to heal wounds, specifically a weapon wound (such as a rapier) by “sympathetic magic.” The ingredient list of the Powder of Sympathy included the less than hygienic pig brains, mummified corpses and earthworms that were ground into a magical powder that was believed to coerce the wound to heal itself. Like most cures of its day, the only thing magical was the thinking behind it’s supposed effectiveness, and the Powder of Sympathy could offer none, much less an actual cure.

Now highly regulated, first extracted from cocoa in 1860, cocaine was a popular ingredient in a number of patent medicines, and throughout the Victorian era cocaine lozenges were recommended for coughs, colds and toothaches. It was sometimes used as an anesthetic and in the treatment of indigestion and melancholia. Most famously the original recipe for Coca-Cola was said to contain cocaine. The drug’s ability to numb tissue and restrict blood flow (particularly in the eye), as well as (at least initially), its ability to promote general goodwill, resulted in a number of medical applications, with famous champions such as Sigmund Freud. Use was widespread. By the late 1800s, the dangers were clear however—Freud himself suffered a grave addiction, but it wasn’t until 1914 that cocaine became a controlled substance in the United States.

Evidence for the practice of trepanning, or the drilling of holes in the skull, goes back farther than writing. 10,000-year-old skulls found in France bare evidence of trepanation.
Hippocrates recommended it in the case of skull fractures. Trepanning was regularly employed throughout the Middle Ages on people believed to be exhibiting irregular behavior (i.e. the mentally ill or people suffering from seizures) in an effort to release the spirits adversely affecting their behavior. While today trepanning is sometimes used in the case of traumatic head injuries, there are still “voluntary trepanners” who believe an extra hole in your head is the key to higher consciousness.

Mouse Paste
Mouse paste was a particularly popular cure for toothaches in Ancient Egypt. Typically, a dead (and often festering) mouse was ground to a paste that was applied directly to the impacted tooth. How this could have possibly been less offensive than the tooth is difficult to imagine. In Victorian England, mice were believed to be a cure for warts. Rather than a paste however, the rodent was cut in half and applied to the effected area.
Fortunately for us, use of a convenient dead mouse has no similar modern analog.



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