Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Instagram

Wacko cures and medical procedures from the past

Boban Docevski

Since childhood, we all know that some of the things that are made to cure you either feel bad or taste bad, or as some people say: “if it tastes bad it must be good for you.” It turns out that this unwritten rule has been taken to some extremes in the past.

Judging by the cures and medical procedures listed below, we can conclude that human “ingenuity” can go very far when it comes to finding a cure. Here is a list of some of the procedures and cures used in the past.

1 Treacle

This solution is one of the sweetest on the list; the others are definitely more unpleasant. Treacle is any uncrystallized syrup made during the refining of sugar.

The term “treacle” was used by Middle English speakers to signify a kind of medicine. Old herbalists and apothecaries used to make a medicine (also known as theriac or theriaca) which was made out of many ingredients. The theriaca was used in many different situations, such as an antidote treatment for poisons, snakebites, and as a cure for various other diseases.

A bottle of Dutch treacle

Apparently, it was also considered as a cure for the Black Death. Unfortunately, to be effective, it had to be at least ten years old. People believed that treacle could completely remove the plague from the body. There is some logic to this, as when the syrup was left to mature for some time, disease-fighting molds, yeasts, and other cultures develop in it.

2 A spoon of crushed emeralds

An emerald crystal  Photo credit

It seems that this was a cure for kings. The method is simple: people used to ground down this precious stone in a mortar and pestle, mix it with water and then drink it like a potion.

Sometimes it was mixed with food or simply swallowed. Emeralds might be pretty, but the thought of eating them is not that pleasant. They probably taste and feel like crushed glass shards.

3 Taking a bath in urine

Constantine the African examines urine

Urine is another sample one of the all-curing substances, used to treat all kinds of health problems throughout history. People especially loved it in Medieval Europe. Plague constantly infested people and thus, they believed that bathing in urine few times a day, would help to relieve the terrible symptoms of the disease. A glass or two of the liquid was also recommendable. During the years of Black Death, clean, uninfected, urine was collected and given or sold to the people in need.

4 Rubbing the victim’s body with a chicken

Thomas Vicary, the inventor of the Vicary Method

It may sound like a joke, but it was a real method which was often used by medieval doctors. The whole ritual was called “the Vicary Method.” It was named after Thomas Vicary, the English doctor who invented it. First, a hen’s backside needed to be shaved and then strapped on the swollen lymph nodes of the sick person.

All of this was done with an alive and breathing chicken. Then, when the chicken got sick too, it needed to be washed and applied on the person again until only the chicken or victim remained healthy. Strangely enough, the technique was widespread. Many chickens got sick and spread their plague-ridden parasites everywhere. Vicary became famous, and even today there is a special lecture held every year in his honor at the Royal College of Surgeons in England.

5 Applying human excrement paste on the victim

Photo source

This one is probably the most disgusting. A cure from hell. The inflamed lymph nodes in the armpits or groins of the plague victim were opened to allow the disease to “leave” the body, and then a mixture of tree resin, flower roots, and human excrement was applied directly on the wounds. The “treated” places were then wrapped up. This whole process is probably a good starting point for a whole new disease.

6 Trepanation

Trepanning, (which means drilling a hole in someone’s head) is an ancient surgical procedure which involves drilling or scraping a hole in a person’s skull.

Trepanning is still done today, but in a controlled medical environment as a way to reach the brain and cure some intracranial disease or injury. Back in the ancient days, the village witch doctor, or shaman, was the one who decided if somebody needed to be drilled. Usually, the people who were diagnosed with abnormal or wild behavior (due to some mental illness), had their skulls drilled so that the evil spirits could escape from their heads.

The Extraction of the Stone of Madness, a painting by Hieronymus Bosch depicting trepanation

According to the evidence found in some prehistoric cave dwellings, trepanation is probably one of the oldest surgical procedures in the world. Cave paintings suggest that skulls were opened for various illnesses such as epileptic seizures, migraines, and mental disorders.

7 Bloodletting

A depiction of bloodletting

Here is another medical procedure that was practiced since ancient times. Bloodletting is the act of cutting a patient’s blood vessel open and withdrawing a certain amount of blood out of him. This was done because people believed the procedure works for all sorts of diseases.

The idea that bloodletting is an efficient curing method came from the ancient belief that blood, as well as other bodily fluids, (collectively called “humors”) had to be in a constant state of balance so that a person could remain healthy. This procedure was one of the most common procedures done by surgeons until the 19th century. It was later discovered that, realistically, bloodletting helped only with the regulation of hypertension, and only if another method of regulating blood pressure wasn’t available.

8 Cauterizing Hemorrhoids with Hot Irons

A detailed description with an illustration of the procedure

Hemorrhoids have been a pain in the a.. for centuries. People have invented various ways of treating them through the ages. Some of those methods were less painful, while others, like the one described here, hurt a bit more.

Modern medicine treats severe cases of hemorrhoids by cutting them and then cauterizing them with electrical wires or laser, under the effects of an anesthetic. But these modern tools weren’t available for the patients in the past. Medieval doctors did the same procedure, but instead of a laser, they simply used a heated iron to burn the problematic swollen vein. It sounds very painful.

9 The tobacco smoke enema

A 1776 textbook drawing of a tobacco smoke enema device

After tobacco was brought from the Americas in the early days of colonization, it was immediately recognized as a cure for many things. One of the procedures involving tobacco was borrowed and adapted from an old Native American practice- blowing tobacco smoke into the anus of a patient suffering from colds, drowsinesses, or gut pains. For this procedure, European medical practitioners invented the tobacco smoke enema. Besides tobacco smoke, liquid tobacco enemas were also prescribed to patients suffering from a hernia. Tobacco enemas were a thing until early 19th century doctors discovered that nicotine, which is part of tobacco smoke, is a poisonous substance.

10 Powder of sympathy

The usual practice of curing a wound involves applying a remedy directly on the wound, but not in this case. Some people in 17th century Europe thought differently.

This specialized half magical and a half medical procedure was exclusively invented for curing sword wounds by applying a powder on the weapon which caused the wound, but not on the wound itself.

This fight had probably led to sword powdering

This way, people hoped that the weapon would heal the injury which was provoked. Here are some of the ingredients of the powder that was applied to the blade: earthworms, pigs’ brains, iron oxide (rust), and bits of mummified corpses.

11 Snake Oil

Snake oil was introduced in the Western world mainly through Chinese laborers that worked on the First Transcontinental Railroad. People used to give this traditional Chinese remedy to workers that had arthritis problems or some other joint pains.

They claimed that rubbing some snake oil on the joint helped them reduce the pain.

Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil advertising poster

Western medicine practitioners looked suspiciously upon this remedy and made the term “snake oil” became a synonym for all those ineffective remedies with unidentified ingredients.

12 Vin Mariani

A glass of wine is always beneficial for a person’s health, but in 1863 a French chemist called Angelo Mariani decided to make his own enhanced type of wine. Mariani introduced himself with the coca plant and its effects and came up with the idea for the Vin Mariani tonic. Mariani’s wine tonic was made out of Bordeaux wine mixed with coca leaves.

A Vin Mariani advertising poster

The alcohol that the wine contained acted as a solvent that extracted the cocaine from the coca leaves so, besides the effects of the wine, Vin Mariani was enhanced with the effects of the cocaine.

A bottle of Vin Mariani contained around 6 mg of cocaine. Mariani advertised his drink as an energy drink, claiming that it restores health, strength, energy, and vitality. he also said that his tonic helps “overworked men, delicate women, and ill children.” Thomas Edison, Queen Victoria, the Czar of Russia, Pope Saint Pius X, and Pope Leo XIII, were among the famous people that loved Vin Mariani. Inspired by this product, John S. Pemberton will later invent the drink that we know today as Coca-Cola.

13 Heroin Cough Syrup

Heroin is one of the most abused and addictive substances in the world, but at the beginning of the 20th century, people thought differently.

After Bayer had synthesized heroine out of morphine, they started to advertise it and sell it as a cough syrup for children. They claimed that unlike morphine, the heroine was non-addictive, but pretty soon it was proven that their claim was completely wrong. After some tests had been conducted, tests subjects said that the substance made them feel “heroic,” so the name heroin was given to this new drug.

Bayer’s heroin bottle

At the beginning, tuberculosis patients felt very relieved from the effects of the drug, but soon the addiction effects took place and things changed. Finally, Bayer decided that it was time to discontinue the making of the product.

14 Mercury

Yes, mercury is toxic and deadly, but that didn’t stop people from using it as a conventional medicine for centuries.

Some people even believed it was the elixir of youth. In ancient Greece, Mercury was used as an antiseptic, while the Ancient Chinese thought that it could prolong the life of a person who consumes it. The practice of using Mercury as medicine continued until the early 20th century when it was used as a cure for syphilis.

Liquid Mercury  Photo credit


15 Insulin coma therapy

The inducing of Insulin shock therapy on a patient

This psychiatric treatment involved the injection of massive doses of insulin in a patient, thus inducing comas that lasted for several weeks.

The procedure was invented in 1927 by a psychiatrist called Manfred Sakel. Sakel believed that the treatment could cure mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. It was practiced in many psychiatric institutions during the 1940s and 1950s.

16 Dead mouse paste

Here, put this on your teeth…

One of the most peculiar things that people did in ancient times was using dead mouse paste as an ointment. Toothaches were a common illness in Ancient Egypt, mainly because of the sandy environment. Sand enters food and causes dental problems. Somehow, ancient Egyptians “discovered” that dead and rotting mice could help with the dental problems which they had. They used to mash dead mice and then apply the disgusting paste over the problematic teeth. If toothaches were severe, a whole bowl of dead mice was prescribed.

17 Partial tongue removal as solution for a stutter

Glossectomy is a surgical procedure in which the tongue is removed. Hemiglossectomy is a procedure in which the tongue is partially removed. Today, this is usually done due to some forms of oral cancer growth that may inflict the tongue, but in the past hemiglossectomy was done for an entirely different purpose. During the 18th and 19th century, medical practitioners believed that cutting part of the tongue would help people who were suffering from a stutter. Those who undergone this procedure and survived, probably weren’t able to tell if it helps- it was so effective that people weren’t able to speak any longer.

18 Dwale: a crude and deadly anesthetic

An opium poppy

Medieval Europe was famous for strange potions and cures. One of those potions was an anesthetic called “dwale,” which managed to put people to sleep… forever… This concoction was a mixture of bile, opium, lettuce, bryony, and hemlock. Used between 1200 – 1500 A.D. in England, dwale had the ability to put the patients in a deep sleep and allow the surgeons to work, but on some occasions, the patients would stop breathing.

19 Metallic catheters inserted into the bladder

I told you it wouldn’t hurt…

When urine was blocked and gathered into the bladder of a patient with syphilis, medical practitioners in the 1300s had rather harsh methods of unblocking it.

One of the tools used for this was called a urinary catheter, which was a metal tube that was designed to be inserted through the urethra directly into the bladder. It sounds like a hellish and painful procedure.

20 Inversion Traction

A depiction of how inversion traction was performed

We all know that Hippocrates is considered as the father of modern medicine, but not everything he said was medically correct and right.

Read another story from us: The Radium Ore Revigator was a pseudo-scientific medical device used to infuse drinking water with radium

Hippocrates recommended to people who had issues with the spine or pain in their joints and back, to be stretched with the help of a rope and a wooden ladder. This was done while the person was hanging upside-down.

Boban Docevski

Boban Docevski is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News