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The Unusual Times
Fiction & Drollery

Frightening medical practices people once paid for

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Before you complain about your doctor, thank your lucky stars you were born in this age. Had you the misfortune to be born in earlier ages, you may well have had to endure cures that included halved dead mice, holes drilled in your skull, or a large chunk of tongue being ripped from your head

10. Quinsy paste
Quinsy, an old term for a peritonsillar abscess, had a unique (and particularly grotesque) remedy in the 16th century. Simply roast the guts of a flayed cat, the grease of a hedgehog, the fat of a bear, honeysuckle gum and virgin wax (no idea what this is) - and apply.

9. Dead mice
In Elizabethan times, a halved mouse was applied to cure warts. Dead mice were also used to treat measles and bed-wetting.

8. Tobacco smoke enemas
Nowadays there is a lifebuoy every few hundred yards along the side of the Thames in London, but in the 18th century another riverside aid was available to help those that fell in.The Royal Humane society provided tobacco enema kits (consisting of bellows and a tube) to revive drowned men. Perhaps a revival of this would be a greener alternative to the e-cigarette… or perhaps not.

7. Electric eels for headaches
What should you do when your slave complains of a headache? Well, according to a Dutch pamphlet from the 18th century we should get the aforementioned unfortunate to hold an electric eel. The pamphlet promises a 100 per cent success rate, which is unsurprising as it’s better to lie about a headache then be electrocuted by an eel.

6. Bloodletting
It is easy to spot a barbershop as they often have a red and while striped pole outside. This pole harks back to the surgical past of the barber shop. For many centuries the letting of ‘bad’ or ‘unbalanced’ blood was a popular therapy. The red on the pole outside the barber represents blood, the white the tourniquet and the pole the stick inserted into the customer to dilate the veins. The application of bloodsucking leeches was also very popular.

5. Hemiglossectomy for stuttering
In the 18th and 19th centuries it was probably wise to keep one's stuttering to oneself, as the cure was worse than the condition. Half the tongue was cut out, which frequently caused the unfortunate patient to bleed to death.

4. Anglo-Saxon cow-bile eye-salve
For the sake of fairness to the past, we have cheated by inserting this entry. Whereas the other treatments on this list tend to be dangerous or ineffective, an Anglo-Saxon recipe for eye salve was found to be remarkably good. The recipe calls for two species of Allium (garlic and onion or leek), bile from a cow’s stomach and a healthy dash of wine. Not only has the medicine proved effective on eyes, initial tests show it can kill the lethal superbug MRSA.

3. Trepanation
Scraping or drilling a hole in the skull was a widespread ‘medical’ practice for thousand of years, and was used to cure a variety of ailments. Trepanning is the oldest form of surgery we have evidence of, and it appears it was very popular in the Neolithic period - affecting around 7 per cent of human skulls from the stone age (though many of these may have been carried out after death in an attempt to reanimate the body or soul). The last recorded case was in the USA as recently as 2000 (the trepanniers were prosecuted for practising medicine without a licence).

2. Dead hands and fingers
The hand of a recently deceased person was said to have many healing properties, and was supposedly particularity effective for goitres. A string that had been previously tied around a dead man’s finger, known in some parts of the USA as a ‘zwischenträger’, could be tied around a tumour. It was said that once the string had rotted your tumour would disappear.

1. Lobotomies
A lobotomy patient endures the scraping away of most of the connections to the prefrontal cortex. It was used to attempt to cure various mental and behavioural ‘abnormalities’. To get an idea of the success of this practice, we can look at the results of Gottlieb Burckhardt, an early pioneer of the modern practice. Of his six lobotomised patients, two experienced no change and one patient experienced epileptic convulsions and died just days after the operation. The mortality rate in the 1940s was around 5 per cent. Frighteningly, many survivors of this gruesome operation lost intellectual abilities, as well as their personalities. The practice was banned in the Soviet Union in 1950 on moral grounds, and other countries followed suit.

Disclaimer: We strongly advise you do not try any of these practices, as they are very dangerous.

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