Bad Medicine

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader.

Most of us take modern medical science for granted. MRIs, pain relievers, and the polio vaccine might not seem like a big deal today, but if you look back a couple hundred years, it may change your mind.


These days you can easily find dozens of effective remedies at the local pharmacy to treat anything from a sore toe to scalp itch. So it’s hard to imagine that less than 200 years ago, a person complaining to a trusted physician about a simple ailment was likely to undergo barbaric treatment that including draining of the blood, blistering of the skin, and induced vomiting.

In the 1800s, doctors were scarce and ill-trained. There were no regulations concerning the education of physicians. With just a little book learning and information passed down by a family member, almost anyone could set up shop and call himself a doctor. There were no antibiotics, no X-rays, no vaccines, and none of the diagnostic tools we now take for granted.

Surgery was often performed by barbers. Not only did they give haircuts and shaves, but they also extracted teeth, lanced boils, and bled patients. In fact, the colors of the famous barber’s pole are derived from the practice of bloodletting: red for blood and white for bandages. The pole itself was sometimes grasped by patients in order to make his veins stand out and make the bloodletting easier. In the end, the patient was as likely to die from treatment as from the illness.


People of the 19th century accepted pain as an inevitable part of life. The aches and pains we associate with a long day of work or a touch of the flu couldn’t be quelled by popping an aspirin -that wonder drug wasn’t produced until 1899. The common rationale was that pain was a punishment from God, and to endure it was good for the soul.

There was no anesthetics, either. Until the 1840s all surgeries were performed without it.  For this reason, not to mention the real possibility of death from blood loss, surgeons had to be quick. Records show that during the Battle of Bordello, Dominique Jean Larrey (1766-1842), a surgeon in Napoleon’s army, performed 200 amputations in the first 24 hours. Even at that speed, the mortality rate was almost 100% due to shock or infection. Septicemia, or blood poisoning, was an ever-present danger. Surgeons traveled from dissection room to operating room, never once changing their coats or washing their hands.


Most physicians of the 1800s still subscribed to the ancient Greek belief that the body was made up of four “humors” corresponding to the four elements of the Earth: yellow bile (air), black bile (water), phlegm (Earth), and blood (fire). The Greeks believed that the lack or excess of these humors caused all illnesses, and had to be treated accordingly. If a doctor suspected a buildup of bad blood, the patient could be “cured” by the cutting and draining of the offensive liquid. There were even records of primitive transfusions using sheep’s or cow’s blood.

Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813), a signer of the Declaration of Independence, humanitarian, and renowned physician, was a noted believer in “humor” therapy. To maintain balance among the humors, Rush prescribed a horrifying course of bloodletting, blistering, and swinging of the body, a treatment in which the patient would be strapped into a chair, suspended from the ceiling by a rope, and swung violently back and forth to induce vomiting. Once a patient vomited, they were brought down and the treatment was considered a success.


In the 1820s and 1830s, people had little faith in “scientific” medicine, due no doubt to treatments that were painful and usually produced no results other than infection or death. A new movement of treating illnesses with old folks remedies grew out of the public’s fear and mistrust of doctors. The medical profession called it quackery. The word is thought to originate either from the phrase “quicksilver doctor,” which refers to the use of highly poisonous mercury as a cure, or from kwaksalver, an early Dutch term meaning “someone who prattles about the efficacy of his remedies.”

Either way, quacks promised quick results and easy answers without evidence to support their claims. They sold cure-all elixirs -such as Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, which was 80% vegetable extracts and 20% alcohol- and patent medicines laced with cocaine, opium, and caffeine. Morphine-based mixtures were even sold in the Sears catalog. Patients often felt better after taking a swig (or several swigs), but these patent medicines didn’t cure anything.


What changed? In 1865 Dr. Joseph Lister noted that almost half of patients with amputations were dying. The main cause: post operative sepsis infections, or sepsis for short. He blamed it on unsanitary conditions, comparing the smell of an operating room to a city sewer. Inspired by Louis Pasteur’s theory that decay was caused by living organisms in the air, which on entering matter also made it ferment, Lister made the connection with sepsis. He had also heard that carbolic acid was being used to treat sewage, so he began using it to clean wounds and surgical instruments.

In 1846 Scottish surgeon Dr. Robert Liston (1794-1847) introduced the use of ether as an anesthetic, making it possible for doctors to operate on patients with less pain.

Other advances included the invention of the clinical thermometer, stethoscope, and hypodermic needle; the development of anthrax, rabies, a smallpox vaccines in the 19th century; and the discovery of penicillin the early 20th century.

When technology started catching up with advances in medicine, X-rays, the incandescent light, and even the invention of the telephone changed things dramatically for both patient and surgeon. But was it the end of quackery? Not by a long shot. Here are a few “modern” treatments that leave us wondering.


(Image credit: Franciaio)

Description: The user sticks a hollow, cone-shaped candle into the ear canal and lights it. As the candle burns, it supposedly creates a vacuum that sucks out ear wax, debris,and other “toxins.” Claimed benefits include an improved sense of smell and taste, clearer eyesight, purified blood, and even a “strengthened brain.”

Truth: Sure enough, when you stick the candle in your ear, light it, and let it burn down, some crud forms inside the cone. What’s it made of? Candle wax. If there was any crud in your ear to begin with, it’s still in there.


Description: “Fresh cell therapy, also called live cell therapy or cellular therapy, involves injections of fresh embryonic animal cells taken from the organ or tissue that corresponds to the unhealthy organ or tissue in the patient.” Some reported recipients: Marlene Dietrich, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, and Fidel Castro.

Truth: If you’re having trouble with your rump, injecting cells from a rump roast isn’t going to do you any good and may do harm. According to the American Cancer Society, the therapy “has no benefit, and has caused serious side effects such as infection, immunologic reactions to the injected proteins, and death.”


(Image credit: Brattarb)

Description: This procedure takes the power of positive thinking to extremes: the “surgery” is performed by a healer, using psychic powers alone.

Truth: It’s pure slight of hand. The most skilled “psychic surgeons” go as far as to use a false fingertip filled with artificial blood so that when they draw a finger across your skin it leaves a red, “bloody” line that has the appearance of a surgical incision. Then they supposedly reach into your body and present you with what they claim are “diseased organs” or other body parts. What are they really? Usually chicken guts or cotton wads soaked in the fake blood. According to the American Cancer Society, “all demonstrations to date of psychic surgery have been done by various forms of trickery.”


Description: Also called colonic irrigation, this one plays on the theory that if a treatment hurts, it must be doing some good. A rubber tube is passed into the rectum for a distance of up to 30 inches (ouch!). Then as much as 20 gallons of warm water, coffee, herbal tea, or some other solution is gradually pumped in and out through the tube to remove “toxins.”

Truth: “No such ‘toxins’ have ever been identified; colonic irrigation is not only therapeutically worthless, but can cause infection, injury, and even death from electrolyte imbalance.”


Description: Trepanation, also known as “drilling holes in your head,” is believed to be the oldest surgical practice in history. Archaeologists have found skulls with holes drilled in them dating back as far as 5,000 BC. Modern advocates of the procedure claim that drilling holes “relieves pressure permanently,” and in the process increases blood flow to the brain and expands consciousness. One Englishwoman named Amanda Fielding performed the “surgery” on herself in 1970; she not only lived to tell the tale but ran for parliament in 1978 …and received 40 votes. “Although I trepanned myself in 1970, having unsuccessfully looked for a doctor to do it for me, I have always been very against self-trepanation,” Fielding says now. “It is a messy business and best done by the medical profession.”

Truth: This form of treatment is not just dangerous, it’s also totally unnecessary. “This is nonsense,” says Dr. Ayub Ommaya, professor of neurosurgery at George Washington University.

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Supremely Satisfying Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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Yeah, I had a friend who had Reyes Syndrome as a child, she barely survived. Now people say, "My doctor told me to take baby aspirin." But you will not find baby aspirin anymore. You will find "low dose" aspirin for heart patients, just not in the children's medicine section.
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"The aches and pains we associate with a long day of work or a touch of the flu couldn’t be quelled by popping an aspirin"

You should strictly avoid giving aspirin to anyone under 19 when having flu-like symptoms, or even within a few weeks of any viral infection. Reyes syndrome is nothing to scoff at. They stuck that warning on the label because hundreds of children were dying every year. It's a wonderful drug, otherwise.
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At least the old Greek-based system had 4 elements. Chinese 'medicine' has 2: hot and cold. Feeling cold? Eat more hot foods. Feeling hot? Eat more cold foods. Then boil some vinegar in the room for good luck.
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The tragedy of psychic "surgery" is that the charlatans fooled actor Peter Sellers to forgo open-heart surgery and rely on their trickery to cure his heart condition. He started suffering from cardiac events since 38 and finally died at the young age of 54.
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