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Medical science has a long and tortured history. For every genius like Alexander Fleming or Banting and Best (discoverers of Penicillin and Insulin, respectively), there were ten-thousand quacks selling obscure "wonder-cures" on ten-thousand street corners. For every treatment that worked and remains accepted practice, there were two that did more harm than good. Here, we take a look at the dark side of medical history, unearthing some of the weird and terrible treatments and therapies from times gone by.
Insulin Coma Therapy for Schizophrenia
Let's go back to a time before effective psychoactive medication, to 1928 and a Doctor in Berlin named Manfred Sakel. Dr. Sakel, in the 1920s spirit of try-and-see experimentation that (mercifully) doesn't happen that often with people's lives anymore, started giving the recently-discovered insulin to patients with opiate withdrawal. He noticed it made them calmer, less argumentative, and more manageable.
Sakel took this as a huge success and moved to Vienna, opening a clinic for patients with Schizophrenia, which then had no treatment. Here, he practiced the same therapy (Insulin-shock-behandlung) on patients with Schizophrenia, noting that Schizophrenic patients, too, were calmer and manageable and had a reduction in their psychosis following insulin therapy.
In Insulin Shock Treatment, patients were basically given a large dose of insulin, enough to put them into a coma. ICT caused nasty side-effects, and patients sometimes demanded that treatment be stopped. Dr. Sakel overruled them, seeing their rejection of treatment as a symptom of their psychosis. Life was maintained by intravenal glucose and tube-feeding. This dose of insulin could be enough to bring on multiple epileptic seizures, and up to 10% of patients died in the course of treatment. In May 1936, Sakel reported his success to representatives of 22 countries at the Swiss Psychiatric Society.
Soon, it was adopted across Europe and, by the end of the 1930s, in the United States. It remained popular for many years. Only the invention of Chlorpromazine, the world's first antipsychotic, in 1950, sounded the first death-knell for Insulin Shock Therapy. However, it took many years for the practice to finally fade away.
Morphine for Teething Pain
Teething infants were a little bit of a nuisance for the Victorian mother, Contravening - as they did - the then-accepted wisdom that "children should be seen and not heard". Luckily Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup was there. Founded in the 1840s, it's two main ingredients were morphine and alcohol. It offered effective relief for little mites.
By which I mean to say, it drugged them up to the eyeteeth and knocked them out for the count for several hours, with one parent of the time commenting her son "soon went to sleep", after-which they had "no trouble with him since".
Using Arsenic for a Fair Complexion
Throughout history, women have always wanted to be beautiful, and in times gone by, nothing was more beautiful than a fair complexion. Victorian and Edwardian ladies did not want a tan; fair skin was associated with wealth and high fashion. In order to obtain a fashionable, fair complexion, Edwardian and Victorian women would eat arsenic wafers (available from the 1902 Sears Roebuck catalogue for $6 for 100 wafers).
That desired Victorian complexion was literally killing our forebears. Arsenic consumption over time is linked to multiple cancers, changes to the nervous system and gastrointestinal disorders. However, that frail and sickly look would have only added to their charms to a Victorian man.
Methamphetamine for Depression
In 1935, the first Methamphetamine (Benzadrine) was offered to help housewives relieve the monotony of their daily lives. In the 1950s and 60s, methamphetamine was widely prescribed for clinical depression, reaching a peak of 31 million prescriptions a year in 1967. Common brand names for Methamphetamine, included Norodin and Methedrine.
Commonly prescribed to depressed housewives, ads promised "cheerfulness, alertness, and optimism". However, the truth was that Methamphetamine did not relieve depression. It merely caused an artificial "high". Soon, there was a crash, and the patient's body craved the drug. This trapped many in a hell of addiction of which they were not free for many years.
Hemiglossectomy for Stuttering
If you stutter, be glad you weren't around in their 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, doctors would perform a Hemiglossectomy (removal of half of the tongue). While doctors still do this today, in cases of cancer, back then - with no evidence - doctors thought it would stop the stuttering. It didn't work, and some patients actually bled to death on the operating table.