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.
More Bizarre and Dangerous Treatments
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!