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The Most Notorious Medical Treatments from History

Ravi is a traveler and foodie who loves to visit off-the-beaten-track places and understand the culture, history and customs behind them.

The road to modern medicine has not been entirely smooth

The road to modern medicine has not been entirely smooth

Baby crocodile hearts, animal dung ointments, cocaine, heroin, cannibalism; humans have tried almost everything in the last 4000 years to treat their ailments.

And over the centuries, the history of medicine has been a brutal rhapsody of trial and error, ignorant decisions, and brutal choices which, on occasion, caused more harm than good. Yet these are the cruel lessons that have paved the way towards modern medicine we have today.

And here some of the most notorious medical treatments that make us appreciate all the advancements medical science has gone through to reach where we are today.

Prevent wombs from ‘wandering’ to treat female 'hysteria'

The ancient Greek doctors believed that the female womb was an independent creature residing within a woman’s body and had a mind of its own. That is the reason that when a woman remains ‘celibate’ for long the creature develops diseases on its own leading to seizures and hysteria.

To prevent the hysteria from being developed, the womb must be prevented from ‘wandering’ around as the ancients called it. The Greek doctors suggested many treatments like “fumigate” the patient’s head with sulphur and pitch while simultaneously rubbing pleasant-smelling lotions between her thighs so that the ‘bad smells’ would flee from the womb to therapeutic baths, infusions, and physical massages to keep the womb in check.

In fact, the pelvic massages were so popular that it continued well into the 19th century until the doctors found the electric vibrator invented by Joseph Mortimer Granville to be a faster, more efficient way to perform the treatment than with their own hands.

The tobacco smoke enema to treat sexually transmitted diseases

In the late 1700s, tobacco started to arrive on English shores from the Americas. And along with it came a variety of cures to treat sexually transmitted diseases.

One such cure was using tobacco smoke that was believed to cure all sexual ailments. There are many ways in which the smoke was used but the most common was to blow the smoke up the patient’s rectum. The smoke was supposed to warm the patient from within and stimulate respiration. As one medical paper published in 1746 describes the treatment.

“Amid much conflicting advice, a passing sailor proffered his pipe and instructed the husband to insert the stem into his wife’s rectum, cover the bowl with a piece of perforated paper, and ‘blow hard.’ Miraculously, the woman revived.”

Soon tobacco smoke became to ‘one-cure-for-all” solution treating everything from syphilis to abdominal cramps to even common headaches. It was only in the early 1800s when the harmful effects of tobacco were discovered, the treatment started to decline.

Cocaine and heroin syrups

In the 19th century, several doctors started prescribing cocaine and heroin syrups to treat the common cold, headaches, and even depression.

In fact, the German drug company Bayer manufactured a common cold medicine that remained the best seller for over 20 years and the main ingredient of that sweet syrupy medicine was heroin.

This over-the-counter (OTC) drug was promoted as a ‘non-addictive morphine substitute’ and existed till 1910 until finally the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned heroin from being sold, imported, and manufactured stating it's highly addictive and destructive effects on human beings.

And whether heroin actually worked effectively as a cold suppressant is still a matter of debate.

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Cannibalistic cures

The ancient Romans actually believed that the blood of fallen gladiators could cure epilepsy, and 12th-century apothecaries were known for keeping a stock of “mummy powder”—a bizarre extract made from grounded mummies looted from Egyptian tombs.

Even as late as 17th century England, King Charles II was known to secretly drink a draught of “King’s Drops,” a restorative brew made from crumbled human skulls (mostly of enemies) and alcohol.

Most of these cures dwell on the fact that the flesh or the bone of the person drunk or eaten would impart vitality and energy into the recipient of that person. That is why doctors would be frequenting the battlefield to ‘scout’ for fresh blood and flesh so that the cure is fresh and has the maximum potency.

Animal dung ointments and creams

The ancient Egyptians had a well-developed medical system that was replete with the usage of various animal parts for different ailments.

Some of these treatments are even repulsive to think about. For example, baby crocodile heart, lizard blood, mouse paste, and moldy bread were used for wound dressings. Women were sometimes doused with horse saliva to ‘stimulate’ the orgasm within them.

And the most disgusting of all, human and animal excreta of almost every kind were used as a ‘cure-all’ remedy for any ailment. Specialized treatments also included donkey, dog, gazelle, and fly dung for their ‘rare’ healing properties.

While most ancient Egyptian medicine was based on spells and incantations designed to drive out the "demons" causing the illness, but not all were bizarre as the Ebers Papyrus, the medical document found in the valley of the kings also mention the usage of sandalwood oil and rosewood oils to soothe urethral infection which is even in use today.

While these treatments might have resulted in tetanus or other infections, the fact that the Egyptians continued to use them for a long time might mean they would have been effective at some level at least.


For thousands of years, human beings across civilizations believed that any sickness is due to ‘bad blood'.

The bloodletting physicians were the Sumerians and the Egyptians followed by Greeks and the Romans who quickly adopted it as a common medical practice. Famous physicians like Hippocrates and Galen strongly believed that the human body was filled with four basic substances, or ‘humors’; yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood, and these needed to be kept in balance to maintain proper health and vitality. And a person falls sick or is affected by an ailment if there is a break in the harmony between these four ‘humours’.

The easiest way to restore harmony is to cut open the patient’s vein and drain some of their vital fluids into a receptacle. In some cases, leeches were even used to suck the blood directly from the skin. The practice went on well till the end of the 19th century with doctors prescribing bloodletting from everything from sore throat to syphilis.

The practice finally ended in the 20th century when new research confirmed that it does more harm than good. But even now leeching and controlled bloodletting is used as treatments for certain rare illnesses.


Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on April 06, 2021:

Thanks Devika for your comments

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on April 06, 2021:

ravirajan01 I have learned a lot from this hub about such treatments. History is a great lesson and you put together medical treatments from the past in detail and sounded a useful way.. Ailments were treated in so many different ways and methods that even to this day I find that hard to believe. I see that in my way and know that in ancient times it was with what they had and could afford. Your information is intriguing!

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