10 Old-Timey Medical Treatments Inspired by Your Nightmares
In the course of 10 pictures, we're going to make you feel way better about the fact that you weren't born 100 years earlier. Because we're telling you right now, medicine used to be terrifying. And we're not just talking about the fact that it took a really long time to convince doctors to wash their hands before surgery. We're talking about walking into a hospital and seeing things like ...
Wait, what the hell? These are supposed to be old medical photos -- we thought it was going to be like antique stethoscopes and stuff. So why does this guy have alien tentacles growing out of his goddamned mouth? And why doesn't he seem more upset about it?
It's because he's getting a new face. What you are actually looking at is a pedicle graft, a procedure developed by Dr. Harold Gillies to treat disfigured soldiers during World War I, back when skin grafts and reconstructive plastic surgery had about a zero percent success rate. First, a flap of skin from an unaffected area of the patient's body was sewn into a tube and temporarily grafted to wherever the new body part was needed:
You just have to look like a Seussian horror elephant for a month or so.
The tube maintained a blood supply to the grafted area, which dramatically decreased the chance of rejection and/or infection while simultaneously increasing the number of children that would never come near you ever again.
Despite the "before" pictures having all the grace and subtlety of Eli Roth, the "after" photos of Gillies' procedure are strikingly impressive, especially considering he came up with it almost a hundred freaking years ago. Patients would go from huge gaping hole in their face, to the grotesque sewn-on graft ...
This guy's potential employers are basically limited to Sauron or Gringotts.
... to pretty much looking normal again:
This photo is one of those rare situations where "UFO cult induction ritual" is the best case scenario. When you see a ring of mostly nude children holding hands in a darkened room around an alien glow, do you automatically hear gothic chanting in your mind? Or is it just us?
They're actually standing around a sun lamp. Starting in the late 1800s, kids who suffered from lupus and tuberculosis were sent to hospitals and clinics to receive heliotherapy to treat it. The children's skin produced vitamin D in response to the light, and as a result they were better able to fight off TB and other bacterial infections, as well as seriously alarm any child welfare worker that happened to catch a glimpse of the treatment.
"Children, meet the Molesto-Tron 3000"
Electro-Stimulation of Facial Muscles
That man isn't actually screaming in horror -- those wires are electrodes, and he's making that expression because electrical currents are contorting his facial muscles against his will. Okay, he may also be screaming in horror.
The mutton chops on the right there belong to Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne, a French neurologist who electrocuted the shit out of a mental patient's head meat to make him pull goofy faces, and then photographed those faces in the pursuit of knowledge. Consequently, it looks like a still from Howdy Doody if Howdy was the taxidermied corpse of a homeless man rigged with the same wires they used to make Mr. Ed speak.
"We'll call him 'Mr. Dead' and make millions."
Duchenne originally intended to explore the muscles of the hands, but ultimately decided that it was his scientific duty to put electrodes onto peoples' faces. He kept a detailed photo record of his study, because he knew the Internet would be invented someday.
"See? He's smiling."
"Yes Doctor, but what are you treating?"
Related: Give That Vitality A Boost, Huh?
This picture of mounted child heads and a bizarrely cheerful nurse was presumably taken in a wing of Willy Wonka's factory not featured on the tour, wherein he straight-up murders children without any of that candy-themed "life lesson" pretense and saves their heads for glazing.
Unfortunately, the reality here isn't much more pleasant than that -- it's a bunch of kids in iron lungs. These devices were in popular use during the first half of the 20th century to treat victims of the rampaging polio epidemic, because it isn't medicine unless it's mechanically sterile and terrifying.
"This is better than death in the same way a condom of bees is better than castration."
Polio caused paralysis, right down to the muscles the patient used to breathe. The iron lungs were huge machines that did their breathing for them, and as such, a patient could expect to be imprisoned in one of those things for weeks, months or even years. All that time with just their head poking out, unable to do anything except just lay there, motionless and be happy to be alive.
And sometimes a mean nurse would just stand there flicking your ear for 12 hours straight.
This is one you have to look at for a moment before you realize holy shit that guy is missing like 20 percent of his torso and cannot possibly be alive.
Don't worry, all that's happened there is ... oh, wait, it's exactly what it looks like. The guy is having his ribs resected to drain the pus out of his lungs before he drowns in it. In the days before antibiotics, this was a common side-effect of pneumonia. The ribs were often removed so the lungs could be more easily accessed for incision and draining, a procedure which killed exactly as many patients as it sounds like.
"Perfect. I can get my whole hand up in there now."
"We've caught another one, boys! We're gonna eat like kings tonight! There ain't nothin' like the meat of a well-tortured human!"
That dangling torture device was actually for patients with scoliosis and other deformities, in order to "set" their crooked backs before putting them in a cast by dangling them in a net by their hands and feet. This was also back during the terrifying reign of polio, when the medical community was so overwhelmed with cases of skeletal deformity that they were a hair's breadth from just paying circus strongmen to hammerpunch people's spines back into place. Though that would have made for a less disturbing photo.
"Let's just topple the whole damn thing, teach a lesson to this wishy-washy spine."
Nothing mildly amuses a soldier like a woman whose hair is on fire. Wait, is he trying to extinguish the fire? Is he setting it? Is this all some kind of prank?
Don't worry, that's not actually smoke. It's just a huge cloud of bug poison that he's using to kill the lice in her hair. Lice carry diseases, and in World War II, lice were especially common among POWs and concentration camp survivors, because those people clearly hadn't been hit with enough bullshit.
"I made another bet with the devil, then forgot why. I ... may have a problem."
The USDA discovered that DDT mercilessly destroyed lice, in addition to anyone in a physical contest against Jake "The Snake" Roberts. So, it became common practice to hose down pretty much anyone on the front lines with DDT powder, because we weren't entirely clear on what cancer was at this point.
"This should prune your tiny ovaries, dearie!"
Violet Ray Machines
That space-bong the suffragette in the picture is shoving into her nose is called a Violet Ray machine, which were essentially portable Tesla Coils doctors gave to patients to use at home for the relief of minor pain and skin irritation (because if it's old and weirdly science-awesome, it must be Tesla). They started out as legitimate medical devices, but quickly dissolved into mass produced trinkets that could supposedly cure everything from stuffy noses to prostrate trouble.
That's right, "prostate trouble." As in "one of those wands is going on a voyage up your asshole".
The idea was, you plugged the machine into a light socket and then used a variety of glass or metal attachments for different parts of the body to zap away ailments with the combined might of 1920s science and medicine. The medical claims were nowhere near accurate, of course, and the FDA eventually had Violet Ray machines recalled and destroyed.
Plombage (Lung Balls)
You can be forgiven if you can't tell what you're looking at here, because it looks like an X-Ray of somebody with dozen golf balls in their right lung. Of course, that would be ridiculous -- what possible medical benefit could be derived from cramming a patient's lung full of golf balls? No, they actually used these:
It was a procedure called plombage, which was the process of collapsing a person's lungs with acrylic balls to allow them to "rest" and heal the lesions caused by tuberculosis. The drawback to this therapy was that sometimes the balls were never taken back out, which led to infection, sepsis and other serious complications related to having your lung tissue inundated with balls made of the same material used to craft RuPaul's fingernails.
Pictured: a serious complication.
Radioactive Strontium Eye Treatment
We could jokingly compare this to the infamous clamped-eyeball psychological torture scene from A Clockwork Orange, but then was saw the radiation symbol here and realize the reality is probably worse. No matter what the intended use of that device was, this was not an era when people knew a whole lot about safe uses of radioactivity. Or cared.
The patient here is receiving doses of radioactive strontium, which shoots radiation into the eyeball to destroy tumors or whatever other sort of thing you'd hate having on your eye so much that irradiating your eye is considered a preferable alternative. This one is still used, by the way, though they're working on a much less terrifying method of just injecting some strontium directly into your goddamned eyeball.
"Doctor, could you maybe, uh ... stop cackling?"
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For more reasons to fear doctors from the past, check out 8 Terrifying Instruments Old-Time Doctors Used on Your Junk. Or read about 5 Horrifying Tales Of 911 Incompetence.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 4 Medical Miracles that Harness the Power of Sound