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8 Most Bizarre Medical Treatments in History

What do paraffin wax, lobotomy, and mummy powder all have in common? They are part of an era when medicine was more of an art than a science (for better or for worse). The history of medicine is filled with bizarre stories of wild medical treatments and healing methods that revolve around pain and even death.

Despite the honest attempts and goodwill of many doctors and scientists over the years to find the best treatment and the most humane healing process for disease and human pain, the results have been extremely harmful. In fact, in some cases, the patients ended up with worse health problems than before treatment.

Here are 8 examples of some of the most outrageous medical treatments in history! Let’s just say we’re lucky to live in modern times.

medical treatment
Photo by youdontknowjaq from Envato

1. Smoking, the Treatment for Asthma

Some people may actually find this one more funny than shocking. Way before the great anti-tobacco crusade and all these anti-smoking ads on television, there were actually thousands of pro-smoking ads.

It may seem strange, but back in the late 19th century and the early 20th, the inhalation of smoke from burning tobacco was considered one of the best treatments for asthma. As you may guess, this absurd medical treatment had no successful results. Furthermore, subjects who took part in several experiments developed chest pains and palpitations.

When scientists finally discovered the devastating effects of nicotine on the human body, the treatment went down as one of the most ridiculous ever.

2. Mercury Was the Ultimate Medicine

Believe it or not, mercury was once considered the ideal medical treatment for everything from tuberculosis and syphilis to migraines and depression. In fact, something as dangerous as mercury was the “hottest” medicine in the 19th century.

Even Abraham Lincoln used mercury-laden blue pills to treat his episodes of depression. The medical treatment was obviously ineffective, as he stopped taking them in 1861 after noticing that they were related to his violent rages.

By the way, in 2010, the blue pills he took were analyzed by the Royal Society of Chemistry. It was discovered that they could cause mood changes, poor cognitive function, and insomnia, proving the president was spot on!

3. Paraffin Wax Used Against Aging

If you believed that cosmetic surgery and stuff like hyaluronic acid and Botox were modern innovations, then think again. Though cosmetic procedures aren’t medical treatments, it’s worth mentioning this one.

Paraffin is a clear, white liquid substance that can be obtained through the dry distillation of petroleum. Paraffin wax, discovered in the 1830s by German chemist Kark Ludwig von Reichenbach, gained a lot of popularity in the beauty industry. It was thought to help revitalize aging, lifeless, or undernourished skin.

Therefore, in the 19th century, several Western doctors injected paraffin to reduce wrinkles and make the person look younger. Plus, paraffin injections were used on older women in an attempt to make their breasts look firm again. However, scientists stopped this unusual method after noticing the painful consequences the procedure caused.

insulin coma
Långbro Sjukhus’ website, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

4. A “Sugar Coma” Was Used To Treat Schizophrenia

Back in the 20th century, when the number of mental illness cases started to increase, patients were treated worse than animals. Unfortunately, this isn’t an exaggeration. Someone with severe depression or schizophrenia would most likely have a lobotomy (wait for it; we are going to talk about it).

But if she or he was lucky enough, they could get away with a “milder” medical treatment such as an insulin coma. Despite the risks, which resulted in many deaths, the so-called sugar coma was quickly adopted throughout Europe, and many specialized units were established to provide this medical treatment.

Needless to say, the insulin coma proved to be just another awful idea that gave psychiatry a bad reputation.

5. Hemiglossectomy Was the Cure for Stuttering

This barbaric medical treatment is still used today for severe illnesses such as oral cancer. The operation implies removing a part of the tongue in order to save the patient’s life, and the whole procedure obviously includes general anesthesia and a highly skilled team of doctors who know exactly what they are doing.

If you were a stutterer in the 18th century and were seeking a cure for your problem, the doctors would often cut off half your tongue. But that’s not all. They wouldn’t use anesthesia, nor did they know what they were really doing. Chances were you could die from bleeding, but if you were to survive, you would realize that your stuttering was “gone” simply because you couldn’t speak anymore.

6. A Lobotomy for Various Mental Illnesses

This totally hideous, barbaric, and unsuccessful medical treatment obviously couldn’t be absent from this list. A lobotomy, which was performed in several countries only a few decades ago, involved drilling holes in the tops of patients’ skulls. The medical operation was thought to alleviate the distress of the mentally ill.

Later, the procedure involved hammering an ice pick-like instrument through their eye sockets to cut off the connections between the thalamus and the frontal lobes. Patients often ended up in a vegetative state, and as many as 15% died.

For the record, one of the most infamous victims of this medical treatment was Rosemary Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy’s sister. She was left disabled and spent the rest of her life needing lifelong care.

mummy powder
Gary Todd from Xinzheng, China, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

7. Mummy Powder (also known as Ancient Aspirin)

Before the time of decongestant, effervescent vitamin C tablets, and aspirin, rich Europeans would carry around a pouch containing a magic powder. Mummy powder was a powder that has been around since the beginning of time; a special powder that cured all maladies and ailments.

Believe it or not, the powder made from ground-up mummies was a highly popular commodity during the last few centuries. Other methods were used because it was so sought-after and there weren’t enough ancient mummies to meet the demand for mummy powder.

Starting in the 13th century and for several hundred years, unclaimed corpses in Alexandria had resin and pitch applied to them. After this, they were buried for a few years, and when they were “ready”, they were ground up to make mummy powder.

This bizarre powder was used either externally or internally as a medical treatment. Its usage was so general and frequent that it could be applied for things like regular headaches or more serious conditions like muscle pain and stomach ulcers.

8. Heroin Was the Ultimate Medical Treatment for Cough

In the 1870s, C.R. Alder Wright, an English scientist, developed heroin to replace the unsafe and highly addictive morphine. The opioid drug was five times more effective and was meant to reverse the addiction to morphine.

Heroin was believed to be less addictive yet more beneficial for cough treatment. As you may guess, the supposition was proved otherwise by experience. Bayer Pharmaceuticals even marketed the drugs, claiming they were the best medical treatment for various ailments without causing addiction.

It was used to treat sore throats, colds, and even children’s coughs. However, people rapidly got addicted to it. Despite this, Bayer kept on producing and marketing heroin until the FDR banned it altogether.

You may also want to read 8 Accidental Inventions People Are Crazy About.


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