6 Horrifying Ways They Used To Treat Basic Medical Issues
Historical medicine largely consisted of doctors doing things that today would be considered violent felonies. With treatments ranging from stabbing your asshole with heated metal to gargling a mouthful of human waste, it's a wonder we kept going back to doctors often enough to turn medicine into the most flagrantly expensive industry in the entire world.
Curing Hemorrhoids Involved A Red-Hot Poker To The Anus
If the sheer volume of relief creams and homeopathic remedies that people will slather on just to avoid going to the doctor are any indication, today's treatments for hemorrhoids are no walk in the park. Still, they couldn't possibly hold a candle to the accepted historical treatment, which was to fill one's asshole with red-hot iron pokers until the offending hemorrhoid burned and exploded.
Clear back when being overly phlegmatic was considered a sign of good health, Hippocrates penned On Hemorrhoids, a seven-part treatise on the diagnoses and treatment of ass flowers. The preferred method of treatment -- apart from dousing the afflicted butthole with boiling water and urine, which was another acceptable remedy -- involved heating "seven or eight small pieces of iron" until red-hot, puckering the patient's veiny starfish as far as it would pucker, and going to town on it like a line cook at Sizzler. For more serious cases, a tube could be inserted, and a blazing iron fed in and out of it like an ass piston until, eventually, the hemorrhoids separated "like a piece of burnt hide."
"But Cracked!" you're saying. "You're talking about an era in which people thought mountaineering would result in bumping into a god or 12! Of course medicine was barbaric!" And in response to that, let's fast-forward a couple millennia. William Allingham's thoroughly named Fistula, Hemorrhoids, Painful Ulcer, Stricture, Prolapsus, And Other Diseases Of The Rectum, published in 1882, still describes riding the red-hot poker as the ideal treatment for the "piles." Results tended to range from "great pain, retarded recovery, and abscesses" clear on up to death by overdone butthole.
Of course, modern treatment for severe hemorrhoids has moved away from lancing them with hot metal rods -- today, we do it with lasers! Welcome to the future!
Bladder Stone Surgery Was Like Childbirth (But Bloodier)
If you thought bladder stones were a modern affliction that popped up right around the same time as the discovery of Mountain Dew, think again: The earliest such stone on record was found in an Egyptian mummy, which is probably why they wake up so angry after their tombs have been disturbed. In the Middle Ages, cases of bladder stones reached such epidemic proportions that so-called "lithotomists" traveled across Europe with specialized treatment tables designed to immobilize people suffering from the painful affliction while the pesky stone was hacked out of their grundle. As an added bonus, the tables could be quickly packed up for hightailing it out of town in the event that the patient bled to death from his or her groin, which happened frequently.
The surgery -- done without such pleasantries as anesthesia or antibiotics, because those things didn't exist -- began with a pair of assistants pretzeling the patient into the sort of pose that Clive Barker's Wishmaster would inflict upon a struggling gymnast. Then the surgeon ... um, probed the patient with his finger until he was sufficiently sure of the location and size of the stone, at which point he made an incision just above the anus and popped that sumbitch out like a champagne cork on New Year's Eve.
Should the stone be particularly resistant to removal, a menacing metal hook might be employed to pry it out through the cloven taint, because this was a period of history in which hooks were considered acceptable medical instruments. If you've finished shrieking long enough to realize that the terminology we've been using sounds familiar, that's because modern medicine still employs the lithotomy position today, most commonly for the removal of another ultra-painful growth known as a "baby human."
The "Rest Cure" Forced Women To Stay In Bed For Months
Not all afflictions are of a physical nature. The late 1800s, for instance, saw a rash of women develop a mysterious mental condition that caused them to spontaneously act out in insane ways, such as "refusing to eat dinner in the pantry" and "demanding the right to vote." Luckily, neurologist Silas Weir Mitchell came to the rescue with his "Rest Cure," which was considerably less restful than it sounds.
Touted as a cure for "hysteria," a standard session of Dr. Mitchell's cure consisted of absurd amounts of bed rest typically reserved for comatose and/or dead people. Patients were confined to their beds, in the exact same position, for up to two months. No talking, reading, drawing, or any other activity that could possibly stimulate their highly ill minds was allowed.
Additionally, women undergoing the Rest Cure were fed a steady diet of bread, butter, milk, mutton chops, and more butter -- by force, if necessary -- in order to fatten them up (Mitchell was convinced that plumper women suffered from fewer mental issues). Nurses were employed to prevent muscle atrophy by performing massages on the patients -- in the event of a nurse shortage, Mitchell just fucking electrocuted them.
Some high-profile women who received the treatment -- including writers Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman -- lashed out against its counter-productive effects and accused it of being a blatant tool for perpetuating the subjugation of women, because that's exactly what it was.
In fairness, the Rest Cure wasn't strictly limited to women. However, male patients were free to choose between resting and traveling out West to engage in therapeutic activities such as "cattle roping, rough riding, hunting, and bonding with other men in rugged frontier locations." Basically, women had to stay mute in bed for eight weeks, whereas men got to reenact the plot of City Slickers. One famous recipient of this so-called West Cure was Teddy Roosevelt, so we guess at least that version of Mitchell's treatment wasn't total bullshit.
The "Cure" For Stuttering Involved Chopping Your Tongue In Half
In perhaps one of the most egregious examples of the "cast out the offending demon" mentality of 18th- and 19th-century medicine, one cure for stuttering was to perform a hemiglossectomy -- the removal of a goodly portion of the stutterer's tongue. If the mere thought of that isn't quite terrifying enough for you, have a gander at the contents of an early hemiglossectomy practitioner's satchel, which looks like a pictograph of Hellraiser's Christmas list:
The technique was pioneered in the mid-1800s by German surgeon Johann Friedrich Dieffenbach, because of course it was pioneered by a German surgeon. Dieffenbach believed that stuttering was caused by spasms in the voice box that resonated up the length of the tongue, and that said spasms could be interrupted by "making a horizontal incision at the root of the tongue and excising a triangular wedge across it." Basically, by cutting a pizza slice out of your speech muscle. After trying it out on a 13-year-old boy with a severe stutter (see "the terror of German medical science," above), Dieffenbach went on to perform the surgery on hundreds of patients across Germany and France, despite the fact that his results were completely unsubstantiated, and a significant portion of his patients bled to death from their tongues, which is easily the third-worst place from which to bleed to death.
Of course, the hemiglossectomy procedure itself isn't completely off-the-rails -- doctors still use it today to remove cancerous growths. But it is no longer considered a viable option for people in a The King's Speech situation.
The First Artificial Insemination Was Performed Without Consent, Using A Medical Student's Semen
Back in 1884, a 41-year-old Philadelphia merchant and his 31-year-old wife approached Dr. William Pancoast to figure out why they were unable to have children. Pancoast soon discovered that the husband was sterile, likely thanks to a raging bout with the clap when he was younger. After a series of attempts to straighten out the husband's plumbing using methods that were predictably unsuccessful, Pancoast hatched a somewhat more extreme plan to deliver this couple a bundle of joy.
The doctor scheduled a separate examination with the wife. Once she was on the table, surrounded by six medical students, Pancoast knocked her out with chloroform and inseminated her with a syringe, then packed her nether regions with gauze to make sure it took. Now, you may be asking yourself, "But if her husband was sterile, where did the semen come from?" Well, Pancoast simply turned to the handsomest medical student in the room and asked him to, um, fill the syringe.
Pancoast didn't tell the couple what he had done until after the wife gave birth to a healthy baby boy, at which point he finally revealed his secret ... to the husband. The two men agreed that it would probably be best if they never told the woman how she really became pregnant, and she likely never discovered the truth ... assuming she never happened across a certain 1909 letter to the magazine Medical World, in which one of the students who'd witnessed Dr. Pancoast's criminally negligent procedure gave an account of the entire incident.
Incidentally, the letter in question was signed "A. D. Hard, M.D.," because the forces of the universe occasionally collide in extremely happy accidents.
Doctors Would Make Diagnoses By Drinking A Patient's Pee
Prior to the last century, physicians had to rely solely on their physical senses to make diagnoses, because advanced medical machinery like MRIs and X-rays were still decades away from invention, and anyway using any of those things around a bunch of flat-Earthers would've probably gotten you burned alive as a warlock. So, old-timey doctors had a limited bag of instruments to determine what the hell was wrong with their patients -- basically, the problem had to be something they could see, hear, smell, touch, or taste.
That's right. Taste. And what better way to get a sense of a patient's internal health than by drinking their pee?
Based on the observation that ants were irresistibly drawn to the urine of diabetics, ancient purveyors of the bodily arts came to the insane yet undeniably reasonable conclusion that the urine was probably sweet. And since ants cannot be trained as physician's assistants, this meant only one thing: pee tasting. Possibly the first to full-on rave about this fact was English physician Thomas Willis, who in 1674 noted that a diabetic patient's fresh-squeezed jimmy juice was "wonderfully sweet, as if it were imbued with honey or sugar."
But as any wine connoisseur will exhaustively inform you, you can't fully take in all a beverage has to offer without also considering aspects such as its bouquet, color, and cloudiness, so doctors developed a urine wheel to assist in pee-tasting diagnoses:
By documenting the full range of liquid human excrement on handy color wheels, doctors could determine at a glance (and a sniff and a swallow) whether a patient needed to cut down on sweets, double down on his mercury intake, or make his peace with God after his recent lithotomy. Luckily for every doctor who resented having to drink flasks of angry, diseased pee, the advent of chemical analysis by the late 19th century ushered in a whole new era of waste examination, transforming urine wheels into blown tires discarded by the side of the freeway of medical progress. The industry-wide savings in breath mints alone must have been staggering.
Talia is a third-year student at Emory University studying neuroscience and creative writing. You can catch her procrastinating on Twitter or blogging about video games, art, and lesser things.
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For more insane shit actual medical doctors used to do, check out The 10 Most Insane Medical Practices in History and 8 Terrifying Instruments Old-Timey Doctors Used On Your Junk.
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