4 Medical Misunderstandings With Horrific Consequences

If you've ever had a doctor misdiagnose your syphilis as a bad sunburn because he doesn't believe anyone would sleep with you, you know that medical mistakes can happen. Medical professionals, like anyone, occasionally get things wrong, and whole television shows do nothing but recount the hardships of sick people trying to get their weird illnesses correctly treated.


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But no matter how unlucky you are or how many parasitic brain-worms your doctor misses during your yearly checkup, you can still be grateful you don't live in a time when medical misunderstandings would occasionally cause the horrible deaths of thousands of people. For example ...

#4. Civil War Doctors Fight Poop With More Poop

ign.com

Whenever modern people want to talk about dumb medicine habits from the past, we use bloodletting as an example. Before the acceptance of germ theory, many doctors thought that illness was caused by an imbalance or buildup of different fluids in the body, a theory known as "heroic medicine." Cut open a vein and let out some blood, the thinking went, and you could restore a patient to balanced fluids and good health. Plus, it was metal as fuck.

Via Wikipedia
Look at that shit.

But bloodletting wasn't the only treatment popular during heroic medicine's reign. It's just the one we're comfortable talking about. See, blood is gross, but at least you can bring the stuff up when you're discussing history over a beef stew dinner. This isn't the case with another, far more disgusting treatment that was also used in the time of bloodletting: laxatives. Lots and lots and lots of laxatives.

That's right, alongside bloodletting, old-timey doctors gave patients "purgatives" to purge their bodies of disease-causing fluids in order to treat ... well, just about anything. As late as the Civil War, purgatives were still being used as a way to help injured soldiers expel "irritating food or secretions" and poop their way to good health.

The Horrible Consequences

Anyone who has played Oregon Trail should know why combining infectious disease with laxatives is the worst idea since someone first decided to go to Oregon. All those conditions with normal-sounding names like dysentery are just a polite way of saying "you are going to shit yourself until you die of dehydration."

shakzu/iStock/Getty Images
It's all downhill from here, dude.

This poop-killer was fond of doing its thing in crowded, unhygienic conditions, such as war camps: up until very recently, more soldiers died of dysentery than were killed in combat. And the Civil War wasn't an exception. Camps were plagued by what doctors at the time called "flux," but which was really a bacterial infection carried by tainted food and water. Add in some 19th-century purgative treatments, and it was like pouring gasoline on someone that was already on fire, except that burning to death leaves you with more dignity, even if your pants burn off first. Because of this unholy combination of unsanitary camp conditions and literally shitty medical treatment, Civil War soldiers suffered 2 million cases of dysentery and almost 60,000 deaths.

And if that doesn't ram home the "war is hell" message, consider that one of the most popular purgatives of the time was a drug called calomel, which contained mercury. So if you were lucky, you might also have had time to develop mercury-poisoning symptoms, like missing teeth and "hideous facial deformities" before you shat yourself to death. Strangely, this stuff is missing from most of the Civil War reenactments I've seen.

Jim Parkin/iStock/Getty Images
"You hold my gun, Janice; I'll distribute the thermometers and month-old chicken salad."

#3. Explorers Fight Vitamin Deficiency by Destroying Vitamins

yogesh_more/iStock/Getty Images

Scurvy is the gross, gum-rotting, teeth-falling-out disease you get when you don't have enough Vitamin C in your diet. As we've mentioned on Cracked before, humanity was aware for many hundreds of years that scurvy could be cured with lemon juice or fresh fruits, even if we didn't know exactly why that worked (vitamins weren't discovered until 1912). But, like a sitcom where everyone learns a lesson at the end of an episode only to regain their character flaws the next week, the cure for scurvy has been discovered, forgotten, and then rediscovered repeatedly throughout human history.

And at the beginning of the 20th century, humanity was in one of its "scurvy, how does it work?" periods. A series of unfortunate coincidences had raised doubts that citrus juice was the wonder cure the past said it was. Meanwhile, a physician on a long Arctic expedition had observed that the disease could be prevented by consuming fresh polar bear meat. Maybe, the doctor theorized while rubbing his manly physician mustache, scurvy was actually a form of food poisoning due to spoiled meat.

Hemera Technologies/AbleStock
"Look at this meat. It contains, like, so many scurvies."

The Horrible Consequences

In 1902, an Antarctic expedition led by Robert Scott decided to follow the good Polar Bear Doctor's advice. The explorers figured they could safely go without fresh fruit as long as the meat they ate was free of scurvy-germs, and one way of making sure the meat could be stored without spoilage was to boil it. But despite their clever reliance on boiled meat, every man on the expedition soon hopped on board the Scurvy Train and rode its toothless rails straight to Debilitating Illness Central. They survived, but Scott's faith in the new scurvy theories went tragically unchecked: his next expedition to the South Pole, in 1911, killed absolutely everyone involved, and scurvy was at least partially to blame. What the hell happened? Were the polar bears lying to us?

Purestock/Purestock/Getty Images
"That windproof wool tunic totally does not make you look fat."

It turned out that the doctor was correct about fresh meat preventing scurvy: the organ meat of animals can provide sufficient Vitamin C for a healthy diet, which is why Inuits can survive in freezing climates without any Jamba Juice franchises nearby. Boiling that meat, however, is a pretty good way to break down the Vitamin C it contains, and it gradually sucks away the meat's scurvy-fighting powers until it's as weak as a movie hero at the end of Act 2. So, next time you're trapped in an icy wasteland and your bloodied teeth are falling like autumn leaves, for god's sake try not to cook anything.

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