7 Real (And Totally Insane) Medical Practices From History
Whenever someone says, "People in the past were such dumbasses," scholars like to point out that you have to judge history in its proper context. Take medicine, for example: Yes, people once believed diseases were caused by demons and/or witches, but remember that it all made perfect sense to them based on the available information at the time.
That said, we find it a bit hard to believe that no one found it strange that ...
Blowing Tobacco Smoke into People's Assholes Was a Popular Cure
For as long as humans have had buttholes, healers have been shoving various substances in there just to see what would happen. The ancient Mayans ingested hallucinogenic drugs through their rectums as a ritual journey to the spirit world. Yeah, that's what those guys are doing on the right:
"You really, really don't want to eat the brown acid."
But then, in old-timey Europe, enemas became less about going on psychedelic anus trips and more about literally blowing smoke up your ass. We know we just used the word "literally" there, but we're afraid you still think we're kidding. Have this picture for daring to doubt us:
"I swear to God, if you fart, I will kill you."
The anal trumpeter in the illustration is actually using his mouth to blow tobacco smoke up the poor bastard's ass as a form of popular 18th century cure. Back then, tobacco in all of its forms was used to treat basically anything from colic to vomit, hernia, rheumatic pains, and an excess of dignity.
Even crazier, the entire practice of blowing smoke into someone's rectum comes from Native Americans, who used this method to resuscitate drowning victims (we wish we could go back and talk to the first guy who suggested this, because we have many questions for him). American settlers then borrowed this technique for bringing people back from the dead (sans their anal virginity) and with time started promoting it as the new cure-all throughout the New and Old worlds.
"Ugh, menthol, gross."
And so, for about half a century, colonial America and Europe actually witnessed plenty of scenes of people asking their buddies to smoke a cigarette into their butts whenever they got an upset stomach or something. The practice pretty much died down around the early 19th century, but not before becoming the actual, real inspiration for the saying "Don't blow smoke up my ass."
Oh, and in case you thought that using this device on unconscious and willing adults was crazy, they also used it on agitated horses, like the one tastefully depicted below with a pipe sticking out of its butthole.
And this is how steampunk was invented.
And while we're talking about butt stuff ...
John of Arderne's Anal Surgeries Were the Stuff of Nightmares
WARNING: Do not attempt to read the following entry while eating. Or after having eaten recently. Really, don't read this if you've ever eaten food before.
Anyway, an anal fistula (see?) is a condition where your anal glands get blocked and a lump builds up to the surface of the ass in the form of a painful abscess. It's a lot less common nowadays, seeing as its primary cause was riding a horse for hours a day ... which unfortunately was sort of par for the course during the Middle Ages. Back then, if you came down with an anal fistula, it usually meant you had to learn to live with the Superman of all hemorrhoids in a world where soft chairs were considered a mortal sin.
But around the 14th century, along came a surgeon named John of Arderne, who devised a way to fix a knight's broken ass after apparently taking a semester at Cenobite University:
He was expelled for creeping out the other students.
JOA's procedure essentially involved stabbing someone through the fistula and into the rectum, then threading a rope through the hole so it comes out the anus and the initial wound. The physician would then tie the two ends of the rope together and tighten them, after which he'd hack away at ... well, you get the general and horrific idea. But just to make sure, here's another illustration:
It's like if Satan had designed Operation.
There are plenty of pictures out there if you want to see them -- before he died, JOA churned out a buttload of illustrated medical texts, which you'd assume were rife with other misconceptions even more terrifying than his "javelin up the ass" approach to healing people. Actually, despite how gruesome the procedure looks, the operation was a phenomenal success and gave the surgeon Doogie Howser-style medical fame.
We can only imagine what his end-of-the-day journal entries were like.
Oh, sure, the surgery did have only a 50 percent survival rate, but back then such high numbers were pretty much unheard of. So, throughout the 14th century, nobles and knights were lining up to be put into a birthing position and have some guy thoroughly floss their lower intestines.
"OK, when I pull this, you say, 'There's a snake in my boot!'"
They Used Steam-Powered Vibrators on Women
We've previously talked about how vibrators were used to treat the hilariously misdiagnosed female "hysteria." Back in the day, doctors thought that the best way to keep a woman from stressing over silly things like equal rights was to finger-bang her until she achieved a "hysterical paroxysm," usually followed by a relaxing cigarette.
It's important to note, though, that the doctors did not concoct this treatment because they were lonely. They actually saw it as tiresome manual labor, and so, to save time, they eventually turned to machines. And not some slick Silver Bullets, either: We're talking about steam-powered behemoths you'd expect to see in some horrifying porno reimagining of Frankenstein:
Figs. 3 through 9 are just people with pickaxes and torches.
In the mid-19th century, George Taylor invented a coal-powered vibrating machine awesomely called the manipulator to be used for "pelvic and hernial therapeutics," because the 1860s frowned on using words like "stimulate" and "clitoris" in any kind of proximity.
And this is how steampunk Rule 34 was invented.
The female patient would lie on the padded table and straddle that little patch, which would vibrate and give her the "paroxysm" she couldn't get from her husband (Taylor even warned that women must always be supervised while using it to "prevent overindulgence"). While there were wind-up and hand-crank vibrators developed as early as the 18th century, Taylor's was the first to combine the power of skin-melting steam and an uncomfortable closeness to one's private parts -- which here is defined as "less than one nautical mile." Fortunately for the reproductive prospects of the human race, the actual engine part was housed in another room due to its size and the remnants of Taylor's sanity.
"Hydrotherapy" Was Basically Waterboarding (or Worse)
If you do a Google search for "hydrotherapy" nowadays, you'll probably see a bunch of people relaxing away in pools and Jacuzzis. But hundreds of years ago, hydrotherapy looked less like something you'd see in a hotel brochure and more like evidence from a war crimes trial.
Moments before Victorian Rambo snapped.
What you're seeing up there is a legitimate form of hydrotherapy used to treat mental disorders between the 17th and 19th centuries. The idea that water can cure physical and mental ailments dates back to the ancient Greeks, but during the early 1600s, Dutch chemist and physician Jan Baptist van Helmont took that relatively harmless belief and escalated it to "Let's drown the insanity out of these poor bastards!"
"Look, it's this or weird butt stuff. We've had lots of success with weird butt stuff."
Patients undergoing the Helmont cure were usually waterboarded or held underwater until the bubbles stopped, which back then was like a microwave ding letting you know that "mad ideas" have been suffocated out of their head ... if you managed to resuscitate them, that is. The idea eventually evolved into the "bath of surprise," where the patient was unexpectedly thrown into water using complex contraptions seemingly designed by Dr. Wile E. Coyote.
"Always make sure that arrow's pointing north. If shit happens, you're going to need to know which way the border is."
The treatment was an early form of shock therapy designed to snap the person back to reality and waaaaait a minute: Water, surprising the patient ... are we totally sure that all those doctors weren't confusing mental illness with the hiccups?!
"Saying stuff like that is what got you here in the first place, buddy."
Torture Chairs Were Used to Bleed the Insanity Out of the Patient
We feel safe saying that Benjamin Rush has a more impressive resume than any of us. Signer of the Declaration of Independence, surgeon general of the Continental Army, father of American psychiatry -- he did it all. But above all else, Rush was living proof that great and generally smart people can sometimes have really horrible ideas, like using torture to treat mental illness:
"Works great on curbing olde-tyme ultra-violence."
Rush's paradoxically named tranquilizing chair was a form of shock therapy meant to deplete your senses of any kind of stimulation and help make you docile enough so that the doctor could expel all that silly insanity right out of you. That's actually what the bucket underneath the chair was used for: gathering the insanity. For all his education, Rush still adhered quite strongly to the ancient Greek belief in bodily humors and was certain that by involuntarily bloodletting his patients and causing them to shit themselves out of confusion, he was actually purging madness out of them with each disgusting drop.
Eventually, Rush's understanding of mental illness became more sophisticated and he began to realize the deep connection between the brain and mental health. This ironically led him to the insane invention of the gyrator (or "O'Halloran's swing"), which spun patients around to raise their heart rate and improve blood flow to the brain, thus making them sane again.
And see their lunch again, unfortunately.
Soon Rush's theories led other doctors to construct all sorts of rotary, swinging, and spinning devices, which were like early carnival rides ... if carnival rides were found in the basements of insane asylums and were operated by people even more terrifying than ex-con carnies.
"On the plus side, there's no shitty mullet-rock on this ride."
One of many, MANY problems with curing insanity this way, however, was that the man who started the entire craze had a very broad definition of "insanity," essentially classifying it as anything he didn't agree with, including: lying, rejection of Christianity, lack of patriotism, and not trusting doctors.
"I don't want to get on that thing!"
"I see we got to you just in time."
One Psychiatrist Treated Insanity With a Piano Made of Cats
German psychiatrist Johann Christian Reil figured that if you're trying to treat a diseased brain, you need to jump-start that shit. Throw enough sheer terror or utter confusion at the patient, and she's sure to come around!
So, for instance, instead of just using the water shock treatment mentioned earlier, he added live eels to it to mentally scar the bad thoughts out of his patients.
And if all else fails, you can just try posing creepily next to a skull.
Eventually, Reil took it a step further and did away with all the water bullshit, preferring to freak people out by placing mice in inverted glass bowls on them or dripping molten wax on their skin. Reil's idea was to bring patients back to a state of conscious awareness, either by scaring them into it or by creating a spectacle so fascinating that they couldn't look away, thus forcing them to focus on the real world. Which brings us to the cat piano.
"Quit squirming or I'll try using you guys as a violin instead."
Reil called it the Katzenklavier, and it was a literal cat piano, which sounds a bit like that keyboard cat video, only here the cat was the piano, Reil was the cat, and everything was horrible and wrong, forever.
"You will pay, human. Someday, our chosen one shall rise to play this tune to your downfall."
The cats' tails were placed under the hammers of the piano keys so that when they came down, the cats would painfully screech out a melody. The patient, presumably thinking that he was now caught in some Inception-style world of a madness mindfuck, would hopefully come to his senses upon seeing this bit of PETA-enraging lunacy and immediately punch Reil through the lungs. Hey, did we mention that this is the guy who coined the word "psychiatry"?
Men Got Animal Testicle Transplants
In the early 20th century, medicine was finally starting to get the whole mad scientist thing down and was looking for new avenues in which it could really Show them all! One of these was the business of animal-to-human transplants, also known as xenotransplantation. And no, we're not talking about inspirational tales of saving some kid's life by implanting a pig's heart -- we're talking about dudes who wanted to fuck like monkeys getting monkey-ball implants.
It started with French doctor Serge Voronoff, who made a comfortable living improving the sexual vigor of millionaires by implanting the balls of executed convicts in them, which incidentally is also the plot for the best XXX parody of a horror movie ever. As the supply of convict sacks tends to fluctuate wildly, Voronoff eventually decided to just start using monkey testicles instead, which he apparently had plenty of just lying around the place.
I wish I could tell you that monkey fought the good fight and the doctors let him be.
I wish I could tell you that, but mad science is no fairy tale world.
Voronoff also wasn't just your run-of-the-mill nutjob doctor. He was a supreme nutjob doctor with a huge following and a gigantic client base looking to put some of that proverbial monkey-sex prowess into their leather pouches. The fad for this monkey-Viagra hit 1920s Paris especially hard, as wealthy socialites and sometimes even heads of state rushed to Voronoff and others for the monkey-ball transplant.
Then U.S. surgeon John Brinkley got in on the rejuvenation game. Noticing a lack of sexually vigorous monkeys in the area, however, he decided to use goats instead. And unlike Voronoff, who was actually a kinda-respected and somewhat-pioneering doctor during his time, Brinkley just bought a medical degree for $100 and opened up shop next to his goat pen.
Loony can't be choosy.
Brinkley couldn't have cared less about the science behind it and was much more interested in raising his profile and raking in the money. Ultimately, at least 42 of the hundreds of patients he performed the operation on ended up dead, and his shenanigans finally caught up with him. By the 1930s, Brinkley was a multimillionaire and the king of goatnads, but by the 1940s, he was exposed as a fraud and hit with thousands of lawsuits.
Here's to the brave men who stood up in court and said, "I paid good money for this man to give me goat balls, and I demand a refund."
For writing that not even Reil would endorse, you can check out Steve's blog.
Related Reading: We laugh at these, but we wouldn't if they'd resulted in an incredible cancer cure. Sorta like the time some crazy dude electrocuted frogs and wound up learning how muscles work. Medicine is harder than you think -- just ask this real-ass doctor we talked to. Last, why not learn about these medical procedures that secretly aren't worth it.
Imagine being trapped aboard the doomed Titanic on an icy Atlantic. . . with the walking dead. Check out Chris Pauls and Matt Solomon's Deck Z: The Titanic.