13 Bizarre Historical Medical Treatments

Medical history is filled with stories of curious formulations, outlandish remedies, and strange cures. There are stories of hilarious medical ineptitude, and in all fairness, the medical practices that are prevalent today will be similarly snorted at 100 years down the road. From using dead mouse paste for pain relief to storing farts in a jar to prevent plague, we bring you 13 such outlandish medical treatments that might sound bizarre but are fascinating at the same time.

1. Dead mouse paste for toothaches

In ancient Egypt, doctors used to smash and blend a dead mouse with other ingredients and put this paste right onto the aching tooth or the swollen gum to relieve pain.

Dead mouse, Medicine in ancient Egypt
Image credit: Piberyger/wikimedia, Image source: www.cac.es

If you had suffered from a toothache in ancient Egypt, mice would have been the best answer to your ailment. Toothaches were very common in Egypt due to the presence of sand particles in their diet. Sand would get into almost everything, including food. Because of the gritty effect of sand, chewing it would often wear down the enamel that covers the tooth. This, in turn, would expose the nerves and blood vessels leading to the pain.

Apparently, Egyptians came to the conclusion that dead mice were an effective remedy for this issue. They would mash the dead mice into a paste and apply it directly to the afflicted area. In case people had serious toothaches, whole dead mice would be directly inserted into their mouth. This treatment even expanded to rural England in the 1920s.

Obviously, this treatment never worked in curing the pain but led to even more serious problems. Applying rotting objects to exposed blood vessels and nerves would surely turn a tiresome pain into a full-blown infection.(source)

2. Goat testicles to cure male impotence

In the 1920s, transplantation of goat or other primate testicles into men was considered a “cure” for erectile dysfunction and aging. John Brinkley, a con artist, became very rich by performing this bizarre surgery.

Serge Voronoff, John R. Brinkley
Image credits: George Grantham Bain/wikimedia, Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records/wikimedia

Serge Voronoff, a Russian-born doctor, was one of the first to conduct xenotransplantation using primate organs. Between 1920 and 1940, more than 45 surgeons used Voronoff’s techniques, and some 2,000 xenotransplants from non-human to human primates were carried out. Even famous personalities, such as Frank Klaus, a well-known middleweight boxer, had this bizarre surgery. Surprisingly, positive and encouraging results were reported from around the world.

There was a second person named John R. Brinkley who fraudulently claimed to be a medical doctor and conducted similar surgeries. He was famous for transplanting goat testicles into humans. Apparently, this made him one of the richest men in America.(1,2)

3. Dog poop to cure sore throats

In the middle ages, Album græcum, commonly known as “dog poop,” was a popular treatment for a sore throat. It was mixed with honey to treat inflammations of the throat. Externally, it was used as a plaster and spread on the skin to close and heal wounds.

Album Græcum, Sore throat
Image credit: Frank C. Müller via piratesurgeon.com, Image source: sandesh.com

Album græcum is the dung of dogs or hyenas that has become white through exposure to air. In the middle ages, roughly between 1721 and 1746, this was a common form of medication for a sore throat. The dried poop was crushed into a powder and mixed with honey. The effectiveness of this medicine is not known, but the risk of consuming it would surely outweigh the potential benefits.(1,2)

4. Bat’s blood and hot broken glass to cure eye diseases

In ancient Egypt, eye infections were treated by dripping bat blood into the patient’s eyes. Moreover, if the patient had a cataract, then hot, broken glass was poured directly into the eyes.

Eye disease cure
Image credit: James Heilman/Wikimedia, Oasalehm/Wikimedia

Insufferable heat, sandstorms, allergies, and stone grits in the air were responsible for numerous eye infections in ancient Egypt. So, the doctors at that time resorted to the use of bat’s blood for any issues relating to eyesight. Apparently, they believed that since bats have excellent night vision, transferring their blood to people’s eyes would give them proper sightedness.

Moreover, according to the book Strange Medicine: A Shocking History of Real Medical Practices Through the Ages by Nathan Belofsky, hot, broken pieces of glass were poured into the eyes of people suffering from cataracts.(1,2)

5. Red hot iron to heal hemorrhoids

Hemorrhoids were treated by cutting them out with a razor and then cauterizing them with a hot iron. Hippocrates’s book On Hemorrhoids says: “…burn so as to leave none of the hemorrhoids un-burnt, for you should burn them all up.”

operation to remove hemorrhoids
Image source: wikimedia

In ancient Greece, hemorrhoids must have been a commonly occurring problem because the Greeks often wrote about them. Hippocrates, in his book On Hemorrhoids, aptly describes his approach to treating hemorrhoids, no matter how painful that could be:

“I recommend seven or eight small pieces of iron to be prepared, a fathom in size…Having laid him on his back..burn so as to leave none of the hemorrhoids un-burnt, for you should burn them all up…When the cautery is applied the patient’s head and hands should be held so that he may not stir, but he himself should cry out…[S]meared with honey and applied; the sponge is to be pushed as far up as possible.”(1,2)

6. Eating corpses as medicines for all ailments

In the 16th and 17th centuries, many Europeans, including royalty, priests, and scientists routinely ingested remedies containing human bones, blood, and fat from corpses as medicine for everything from headaches to epilepsy.

Eating corpses
Image credit: Theodor de Bry/wikimedia

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, mummies and other preserved and fresh human remains were a common ingredient in European medicine.  Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture by Noble and Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians by Richard Sugg point out that such medicines, containing human flesh, bones, and blood, were used to cure almost every disease. Skull was one common ingredient, taken in powdered form to cure head ailments. Human fat was used to treat wounds on the body.

Another legendary medicinal substance was created by steeping a human cadaver in honey. It was called “Mellified Man.” Many elderly men, nearing the end of their lives, would submit themselves to a process of mummification in honey to create a healing confection. They would eat and bathe in honey, and once they are dead, their bodies are placed in a stone coffin filled with honey. After a century or so, the contents would have turned into a sort of confection that was said to heal ailments. This confection would then be sold in street markets for a hefty price.(1,2)

7. Maggots to clean out wounds

Maggots (fly larvae) have been used since antiquity for wound treatment. They eat the dead tissue and clean out the wound. In a survey in 2013, 10% of US Army doctors still use maggot therapy.

Maggots
Image source: blogs.brighton.ac.uk, Image credit: Photo courtesy of Monarch Labs; Irvine, CA via livescience.com

Maggots have been used to treat wounds since time immemorial. There are reports indicating that Maya Native Americans and Aboriginal tribes in Australia used maggots in their treatment. It was also prevalent during the Renaissance era. During World War I, physicians noticed that soldiers whose wounds were infested by maggots had no fever or other signs of infection and survived their injuries which normally would have been fatal.

Maggots work by munching on rotting flesh, leaving healthy tissue practically unscathed.

In 2004, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted permission to produce and market maggots for use in humans or animals as a prescription-only medical device.(source)

8. Crocodile dung as birth control

In ancient Egypt, crocodile dung was the contraceptive of choice. Dried dung was inserted into the vagina, the idea being that it would soften as it reached body temperature to form an impenetrable barrier.

Crocodile dung as birth control
Image credit: Steve Fernie, Flickr/Creative Commons via

One of the earliest documented methods of birth control was the use of crocodile dung. Ancient Egyptian women (circa 1800 BCE) used this unusual ingredient as a form of contraceptive. They used to mix the crocodile dung with fermented dough. Then they used to put the preparation inside their vaginas to block sperm from reaching their uteri. Even in ancient India and the Middle East, people used elephant feces for a similar form of birth control.

Putting aside the unsanitary nature of inserting animal feces into one’s body, it’s unknown how effective this method would have been. Some researchers believe that the alkaline nature of the dung could have killed the sperm, while others say that by increasing the naturally acidic vagina’s pH, it was actually making pregnancy more likely as greater alkalinity is beneficial for sperm.(1,2)

9. Trepanning to treat head injuries

More than 1,000 years ago, a surgical procedure that involved removing a section of the cranial vault using a hand drill or a scraping tool was used to treat a variety of ailments, from head injuries to heartsickness.

Trepanning
Image source: wikimedia, Image credit: Hieronymus Bosch/wikimedia

“Trepanning” is a surgical procedure in which holes are drilled into the skull of a person to treat health problems associated with intracranial diseases or release pressured blood buildup from an injury.

In ancient times, holes were drilled into a person who was behaving in somewhat an abnormal manner. People believed that this would help to let out the evil spirits from the body of the person. Evidence of trepanation has been found in prehistoric human remains since Neolithic times. Cave paintings indicate that this practice was used to cure epileptic seizures, migraines, and mental disorders. Evidence of healing and bony scar tissue around the holes show that this treatment actually worked.

In modern medical practices, trepanation is a treatment used for epidural and subdural hematomas. Modern surgeons generally use the term “craniotomy” for this procedure.(1,2,3)

10. Snake oil for arthritis

For centuries, snake oil has been a folk remedy in Chinese medicine, used primarily to treat joint pain such as arthritis and bursitis. In the 1980s, research revealed that snake oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids that help to reduce inflammation.

Snake Oil, Arthritis patient
Image credits: Clark Stanley/wikimedia, handarmdoc/flickr

Throughout the 19th-century, snake oil was used to treat arthritis, heart disease, and even depression. In China, oil made from the fat of the Chinese water snake (Enhydris chinensis) is a traditional medicine used for treating joint pain. This particular oil contains 20 percent eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which has strong anti-inflammatory properties.

Chinese laborers were the first to give snake oil to treat joint pain such as arthritis and bursitis to their fellow American workers. When rubbed on the skin at the painful site, this particular medicine was claimed to bring relief. However, this was ridiculed by rival medicine salesmen, and in time, snake oil became a generic name for any fraudulent product whose ingredients were not known or analyzed.

But in the 1980s, Richard Kunin, a California psychiatrist with a background in neurophysiology research, found in his research that snake oil is a potential source of omega-3 fatty acids. These acids not only reduce inflammation such as arthritis pain, but also improve cognitive function and reduce blood pressure, cholesterol, and even depression. Snake oil may have been quite effective after all.(source)

11. Farts in a jar to cure plague

When the Great Plague hit in the 1660s, doctors suggested patients store foul bodily vapors, like farts, in a jar and smell them to get better.

Farts in Jar, Great Plague of London
Image credit: Tarcher Books via aolnews.com, wikimedia

The Great Plague of London devastated the city between 1665 and 1666. Doctors at that time apparently believed that the plague was caused by deadly air vapors spreading throughout the atmosphere. Hence, they felt that if a patient could somehow dilute the polluted air with something equally potent, like a fart, then it might reduce the chances of contracting the illness. So they advised their patients to store farts in a jar and smell them to cure the illness.

David Haviland, author of the medical trivia book Why You Should Store Your Farts in a Jar & Other Oddball or Gross Maladies, Afflictions, Remedies and ‘Cures’, points out that: “This way, when the plague appeared in their neighborhood, they could open the jar and inhale the fumes to ward off the bad vapors that came with the disease. It made sense to them.”(source)

12. Heroin as a cough syrup

The German drug company Bayer started their professional medical career by selling heroin in a syrup form in 1898. Heroin syrup was prescribed to treat coughs, even for small children, and for other things such as insomnia and back pain.

Bayer Heroin cough syrup and marketing material
Image credit: Mpv_51/wikimedia, Image source: weedist.com

Bayer, the German drug company, made their first fortunes when they commercialized both aspirin and heroin as cough, cold, and pain remedies in the 1890s. Moreover, there have been ads where Bayer promoted heroin for use in children suffering from coughs, colds, and “irritation” as late as 1912. Have a look at the ad below:

La tos desaparece
Image source: bebesymas.com

The ad ran in Spanish newspapers and showed a mom spoon-feeding it to her sick little girl. “La tos desaparece,” the ad said, which means “the cough disappears.” There was another ad that showed two unattended children reaching for a bottle of the opiate across a kitchen table.

Heroin was restricted to prescription-only use in the US in 1914. Eventually, it was banned by the FDA altogether in 1924, except to be used under very strict medical conditions.(source)

13. Snail syrup for coughs and other ailments

In the 18th century, snail syrup was believed to cool, thicken, consolidate, and strengthen the nerves, and cure coughs, asthmas, spitting of blood and consumptions.

Snail syrup
Image credit: vauclusedreamer.com

Formulations prepared from snail have been used as medicine for ages. Hippocrates also proposed the use of snail mucus. Snails were considered a sovereign remedy to treat pain related to burns, abscesses, and other wounds.

In the 18th century, snail preparations were recommended for external use with dermatological disorders. They were also recommended for use internally in case of symptoms associated with tuberculosis and nephritis. This trend continued well into the 19th century. The 1945 edition of Dorvault devoted an entire paragraph to snails indicating that snails still had therapeutic usage.

Recently, the FDA has also shown an interest in snails. Ziconotide (SNXIII), a synthetic peptide coming from snail venom, has been under FDA review since 1999. In 2004, the FDA approved ziconotide when delivered as an infusion directly into the spinal fluid. This drug has shown promising results in alleviating severe and chronic pain.(source)

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