Table of Contents
Heroin for Your Child's Cough
In 1924, the FDA decided that heroin should be banned. Until then, anybody could walk into any doctors' surgery, cough a couple of times, and get a prescription. Harrods, the ultra-respectable store favoured by the Queen of England, sold it over the counter until 1916 (along with cocaine).
Bayer synthesized Heroin in 1874, and from the first day, released images of smiling children being fed Heroin by doting parents. Heroin, Bayer promised, was the perfect cure for your child's every cough, cold and sniffle. Heroin showed signs of causing addiction in 1899, and the US government made it prescription-only in 1914.
In the U.K., heroin could be prescribed until the 1960s. Private psychiatrist, Lady Isabella Frankau's, patient list swelled with an international collection of heroin addicts seeking discreet service.
Cocaine for Toothache
An advert for Cocaine Toothache Drops (available for just 15 cents), promises "Instantaneous Cure".
Doing Nasty Things to Furry Creatures to Test for Pregnancy
Before pregnancy testing strips, confirmation of a pregnancy was an uncertain process. Then in 1931, Maurice Friedman and Maxwell Lapham developed a test. In short, they injected a young, sexually-immature rabbit with the urine of a woman suspected of being pregnant. Later, they killed and dissected the rabbit to discover if the rabbit had ovulated. They later discovered it also worked on mice.
They rarely performed this test, not because it involved morbid bunny sacrifice of Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, but because it was expensive and time-consuming (and not always accurate).
Lobotomy for Teenage Angst
Or headaches, or postpartum depression, or anxiety, or [insert condition here]. Lobotomy (the process of severing the prefrontal lobe) was invented by Walter Freeman in 1936. At first, he performed it for depression and anxiety. But the operation was lengthy. He wanted to perform more operations, so he invented the transorbital "icepick lobotomy" in 1946 (exactly what it sounds; an icepick through the eye and into the brain). He liked to shock people, once putting an icepick through both eyes simultaneously. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1949.
He increased the range of his patients over time. Soon, anyone was fair-game. In 1950, he gave a transorbital lobotomy to a housewife with persistent headaches. Her daughter says that her headaches did stop but she was left with the mental-age of an infant:
"She had no concept of social graces. If someone was having a gathering at their home, she had no problem with going in to their house and taking a seat, too."
In the early 60s, he gave a 12-year-old boy (Howard Dully) a lobotomy, because his stepmother, Lou, came into his office and said he was difficult. Dr. Freeman agreed to perform a lobotomy, and to do so without the boy's prior knowledge or consent. After the operation, Dr. Freeman described the boy thus:
"He sits quietly, grinning most of the time and offering nothing."
Lou Dully later had young Howard made into a Ward of State when she realised that the boy was not a total vegetable.
Dr. Freeman performed more than 2,500 icepick lobotomies, before his last - on a housewife named Helen Mortensen - killed the patient with a brain haemorrhage in February 1967. His career was over. Freeman died in 1972, still trying to prove that lobotomy was a life-enhancing procedure.
Bloodletting for...Almost Anything, Really
Our forebears believed that too much blood was bad for us. That's because they believed it was important to balance the four humours: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood. One of the longest lasting medical treatments, it was used from the middle ages until the 19th century, though the theory of the humours was being questioned as early as the 16th century.
Many people, including George Washington, were bled to what to death with (in retrospect) shock from the loss of too much blood. Usually, physicians would take a pocketknife, and let a small amount blood fall into a bowl. Others would apply leeches, which would take 5-10ml of blood each at a time. However , it wasn't not unknown for physicians to bleed up to four litres of blood from a patient with fevers. Unfortunately, we only have five litres of blood to start with.
Thankfully, now when we're burning up with flu and fever, we just take two ibuprofen and curl up under the covers.
Trepanation for Migraine
Trepanation basically involves drilling a hole in your head. It started in prehistory, and some modern anthropologists believe it was related to superstitions about evil spirits. Over time, it was still used to relieve headaches and seizures, though there's no evidence that it actually helped.
Nowadays, Trepanation is only used by modern doctors to relieve pressure following a serious head injury. Other than that single legitimate medical use, trepanation's only proponent is a Dutchman called Bart Hughes, who has no medical qualifications and some exceedingly weird pseudoscientific theories about attaining heightened consciousness through drilling a hole in your head. There's no evidence to support this. Heads are generally better whole. Don't try this at home.
And that's one of our two take-home messages from this round-up of horrible historical treatments and therapies, that and, three cheers for modern medicine!