Many days into self-isolation, watching as the world’s economy and spirits collapse, one might begin to ask the question: do we really know what we’re doing? And in the age of modern medicine the answer is, quite surprisingly, yes! Historically, however, that has not been the case. Nowadays we take for granted our tested, proven, and effective methods of medicine. But back when your insurance carrier was the church and your pharmacy was the local garden, people faced disease with nothing more than a hope and a prayer. Here are five examples of historical cure-alls that historically cured none.
5. Corpse Medicine
Nowadays cannibalism is highly frowned upon. The very word has become a symbol of evil and depravity in modern media. But in the past, consuming elixirs of human bone and flesh was just something you did when you had a stomach ache. In ancient Rome the blood of gladiators was thought to cure epilepsy, and, in keeping with the early European tradition of desecrating everything sacred English apothecaries stocked “mummy powder” – made from ground Egyptian mummies. Edward Taylor, a 17th Century english “doctor”, glorified the religious use of mummies as they were “a suitable substitute for the body and blood of [Christ]”.
All “corpse medicine” stemmed from the very simple, vague, and nonsensical idea that by consuming the remains of a deceased person you were taking part of their spirit with you. And since this idea was conceived and practiced with no understanding of science or medicine, it didn’t really matter what you consumed said spirit with. So mummy powder and other such remedies found their ways into innumerable concoctions including wine, beer, tea, blood elixirs, and hot chocolate.
Before the advent of modern medicine practitioners believed that illnesses were caused by either 1) An overabundance of blood in the body or 2) Hazardous “humors” within the bloodstream. Either way, the answer was bloodletting. Doctors would use metal razors, wood splinters, or leeches to draw blood from the arm or neck. In Europe the practice was so widespread that when the church banned monks (who often played the role of doctor) from administering bloodletting, local barbers began to offer it as service. The iconic red stripes of barber poles represent the blood which would collect on hairdressers’ rags.
In Mesoamerica bloodletting was commonly practiced for spiritual reasons. Priests and social higher-ups would offer their blood to the gods and the symptoms of blood loss were often explained as a heightened spiritual state in which persons undergoing bloodletting could commune with the gods.
Bloodletting would continue in common practice until the late 1800s, in which, with the discovery of new medicine and cures, it began to fall out of favor within the scientific community. And although most of its purported effects have since been widely disproven, bloodletting is still used to treat specific rare diseases.
3. Animal Cures
In the middle ages animal parts weren’t only used by nobles to display their wealth and access to food variety. They were also used as medicine. From cow stomachs to horse saliva to pig’s rumps, if it came from an animal, it was useful. In accordance with the ideas behind corpse medicine, it was thought that by consuming part of an animal, you were consuming part of its soul as well. Thus, cures utilized organs of animals that aligned with ailments they were attempting to cure. So if one had a stomach ache, a remedy would involve the consumption of an arbitrarily-chosen animal’s stomach. That’s science! As with most pseudo-scientific practices, animal organs enjoyed continued use in the field of medicine until the 1800s when they were proven to be mostly ineffective. Animal therapy exists now, yes, but instead of eating beaver testicles (which were used as a cure for common ailments) it involves spending time with very friendly dogs.
Mercury was thought to have healing powers for millenia. Chinese emperors drank pure mercury in the hopes of achieving immortality. Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of China, sent thousands of men on a hunt for an “ancient magician” thought to possess “the elixir of life” (mercury). When constructing his elaborate tomb, Huang ordered that a giant moat be built and filled with this elixir. He would find himself visiting said tomb earlier than expected, as he shortly died from mercury poisoning.
Mercury spread to the west and continued to be used as an amalgam cure worldwide until the mid-1800s. Being that the symptoms of mercury poisoning often mimicked the symptoms of afflictions it was used to cure, it’s lethal effects weren’t discovered until the 1890s. Because it killed almost every patient who consumed it, the use of mercury in America caused widespread distrust and resentment for established medicine.
Frighteningly, humans discovered the true dangers of radiation only a short while ago. Although we now know that radon exposure causes cancer, doctors in the early 20th century ironically used it to treat cancerous tumors. Products like radium toothpaste and radium-lined water bottles were peddled with the promise of wild and universal medicinal benefits. And such “medicine” still exists today. Visitors at the Radium Palace in Jachymov, Czech Republic will be greeted by “radiation treatment” techniques which include bathing in uranium-rich waters and breathing in radon directly. Visitors will also be greeted by staff “doctors” spouting completely false, pro-radium propaganda in advertisement of the spa.
Thankfully the purported health effects of radium have been all but disproven in the field of modern medicine. But places like the Radium Palace are dispiriting evidence that there will always be people untrustful of science and, along with them, charlatans who capitalize on that mistrust.