Murderous Medicine: Six Strange and Horrifying Ancient Medical Treatments
The medical field has advanced significantly compared to where it was fifty years ago, let alone over 1,000 years ago. Although modern technology has allowed us to understand more about the human body than ever before, physicians in ancient times had to make do with the equipment and information they had. As a result, humans practiced some strange medical treatments over time. Below are six of the strangest (and sometimes deadliest) medical treatments prescribed by doctors in ancient times.
1.Bloodletting for Internal Balance
One ancient medical treatment you may have already heard of is bloodletting. Ancient physicians such as Hippocrates believed that humans consisted of four “humors,” or bodily substances. These substances were black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. They believed that if any of these humors became unbalanced, illness would arise. To cure the illness, the humors had to become rebalanced.
Illnesses such as fevers were often attributed to having “too much blood,” so bloodletting was required to restore the humors back to their normal balance. Physicians would typically choose an easily-accessible vein and allow some blood to drain out of the sick person into a container for disposal. Some physicians later turned to leeches to do the dirty work for them, leaving the leeches on the skin of the patient to have their blood sucked out slowly through their skin.
Though bloodletting has been around for over 3,000 years, physicians have only stopped practicing it in the last few centuries. Even George Washington was treated with bloodletting, which historians say likely contributed to his death.
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A nun bleeding a patient under the eye of a doctor. Bloodletting as a medical treatment continued for centuries, but has been widely discredited. (Public Domain)
2.Raw Veal and Badger Dung for Rabies
Ancient Rome was known for its innovation, and medicine was no exception to that. Roman physicians believed that they had found a cure for rabies using raw veal and badger dung. If a person was bitten by a rabid animal, the physician would treat the wound by wrapping it in raw veal and feeding the patient a mixture of hog fat and lime. As if that wasn’t enough, they would also make the patient wash it down with a special medicine made of boiled badger dung and wine to cleanse their system. Yuck!
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Placing raw meat and excrement on a wound sounds like an insane medical treatment today, but in ancient Rome is was deemed a rabies cure! (Javier Lastras / CC BY 2.0)
3.Liquid Mercury for STDs (and Eternal Life!)
Nowadays, we know how dangerous liquid mercury is for our health. Unfortunately, our ancestors weren’t so informed. Ancient physicians across Greece, Persia, and China believed that liquid mercury was the cure for a variety of illnesses. In fact, the ancient Chinese were so confident in their liquid mercury, that they believed enough of it could make you walk on water and live eternally. Many people who believed in its powers eventually died after consuming a large number of mercury pills.
Liquid mercury’s most popular use, however, was in the treatment of STDs such as syphilis. Because mercury was successful in treating these infections due to its heavy metal properties, few noticed the deadly side effects of the treatment until the 20th century. Many individuals who used this treatment died of kidney and liver damage due to mercury poisoning, while others developed cancer later in life.
Modern medicine treats mercury as a hazardous substance, but it was used as a common medical treatment for millennia (Tavo Romann / CC BY 4.0)
4.Poop Poultices for Skin Diseases
Most of us would hesitate to touch poop at all, let alone rub it on our open wounds. But that’s exactly what the ancient Egyptians did! Ancient Egyptian physicians used human and animal feces to make balms and ointments to cure topical ailments and injuries. Some specialists would also use the feces of dogs, gazelles, and even flies to produce ointment for specific ailments, including warding off bad spirits.
Many cultures use feces in traditional medicine, although it’s nowhere near as popular as it used to be (DowntownGal / CC BY SA 3.0)
5.Corpse Smoothie for Pain Relief
You’ll be more grateful for Tylenol after this one. Some ancient physicians believed that the remains of other humans had healing properties. Those coming in with a headache or stomachache in ancient times may have been prescribed a liquid mixture of human blood, bone, and even flesh to drink. Eventually, specific parts of the body were attributed to healing specific ailments, such as the blood of fallen gladiators to treat epilepsy.
In the 12th century, “mummy powder” was made of crushed mummified remains stolen from Egypt and used to create a variety of medicines. Corpse medicine became so common that some forms were even used for recreational purposes or preventative medicine. The most common example of this was “King’s Drops,” which was an alcoholic beverage containing crushed pieces of a human skull.
Macabre as it seems, many medical treatments involved a form of cannibalism. Mummy powders and crushed skulls were sold to treat different diseases. Many apothecaries had cannisters of mummy powder like the one above. (Zinnmann / CC BY 4.0)
6.Sulfur Fumigation to Cure Infertility
You’ve probably never worried about your uterus running away from you, but ancient Greeks definitely believed in ‘wandering wombs’. In ancient Greece, physicians believed that the uterus was its own sentient being that could move around the body. If women did not appease the uterus by giving it children early on, it may grow resentful and leave its rightful spot in the lower abdomen. This would then result in infertility and possibly more serious conditions, such as seizures or suffocation.
To treat this infertility, doctors believed they had to nudge the uterus into its correct place in the lower abdomen. At first, they would use gentle treatments to move the uterus back to the right place, such as warm baths and abdominal massages.
If that was ineffective, they would turn to more drastic treatments, such as fumigating the patient’s head with sulfur while rubbing their thighs with sweet-smelling fragrances. They believed that the uterus would move back down to the correct place by fleeing the foul sulfur odor at the top of the body in preference for the sweet smell at the patient’s thighs.
Men’s misguided beliefs in women’s ‘wandering wombs’ led to strange medical treatments like sulfur fumigation. (Wellcome Collection / CC BY 4.0)
No More Mummy Powder
Clearly, medicine has come a long way since ancient times. From bloodletting to sulfur fumigation, humans have always taken strange avenues to find solutions to our most complex problems. The next time you go to your doctor for a cold, remember it could be worse: at least they won’t prescribe you poop ointment or a corpse smoothie!
Top image: Some of these ancient medical treatments will make you understand how the ‘mad doctor’ trope got started. Source: vchalup / Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh
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