4 Ridiculous (But Effective) Ways Doctors Used To Save Lives
Without the benefit of hindsight, all medical innovations look like crazy people doing crazily stupid things. The first guy who injected himself with polio was by any definition a madman, but he was a madman who wound up saving millions of people, so it's all good. But this nobly psychotic approach to healthcare has resulted in a whole slew of really weird procedures that are equal parts learned medicine and witch doctor chicanery. And some of them worked like a charm. For example ...
Drowning Victims Can Be Saved by Blowing Smoke Up Their Asses
In a medical context, blowing smoke up someone's ass is generally done by insurance companies. However, in the 18th century, it was a legitimate -- and apparently effective -- method of resuscitating drowning victims.
The smoke enema was the practice of reviving near-drowned people by pumping tobacco smoke into their rectums so they would start breathing again. In one of the earliest documented uses, after a man's wife had almost drowned, a bystander recommended the procedure, prompting the man to shove a standard issue lit tobacco pipe up his wife's ass, exhale a bunch of hot embers into her, and bring her back to the land of the living with a new lease on life and a whole lot of internal blisters.
The method was surprisingly effective, though it was unclear to doctors of the time exactly how it worked. It was theorized that the nicotine in tobacco smoke stimulated cardiovascular activity, or that it warmed the victim, or that it dried the water in their lungs, but nobody's been able to pinpoint it, and those jerks on the ethics board won't green-light our study. So the most reasonable explanation was the element of surprise. Because even when unconscious, the shock of unwittingly getting bellows and a puff of nicotine up the rear is enough for most people's hearts and adrenal glands to start a-pumping.
There was a whole public safety campaign surrounding smoke enemas, which included hanging smoke-blowing kits near popular swimming areas in case someone was in dire need of some lifesaving carcinogenic sodomy. A group of doctors even set up a nonprofit called the Institution for Affording Immediate Relief to Persons Apparently Dead From Drowning, offering cash rewards to anyone who successfully learned how to make buttfog. If you've ever taken a CPR class, do you remember how they taught you to hum "Stayin' Alive" to get the proper rhythm? Well, in the service of public health education, there was also a song about how to air-rim someone, though it was admittedly less catchy.
Eventually, the practice died out -- not because people thought it was bullshit, but because doctors finally figured out that smoking caused cancer. So with the rise of vaping, maybe it's time to bring this technique back into fashion.
Women Tested For Pregnancies By Injecting Urine into Frogs
Modern folk don't fully appreciate what an amazing convenience pregnancy testing kits are. Simply pick up a little plastic stick at the dollar store with your ramen and Red Bull, and you're only 60 agonizing seconds from knowing whether you have to make the next nine months of college really count. Of course, that wasn't an option for our tragically dollar-store-less ancestors, who only had the choice between witchcraft and peeing on live animals -- so not a whole lot of variety, even.
Before the 1930s, women who wanted to know if they were pregnant only had one reliable option: the rabbit test. Old-timey doctors had figured out that injecting the human pregnancy hormone into other animals triggered ovulation, so these medicine men started keeping entire farms of rabbits and mice to stick with pee syringes. Unfortunately, these mammals had to be dissected to notice the change, making the process quite unwieldy and very morbid. What these laboratories needed, was an eco-friendly alternative. Enter the African clawed frog, nature's reusable pee stick.
When it was discovered that the frog also reacted to human pregnancy growth hormones, it made pregnancy testing a dream. The test was more humane, but most importantly, it was startlingly accurate. Subtle changes in a rabbit's anatomy could be difficult to interpret, but it's not hard to tell if a frog has dropped some baby bubbles. So shoot some lady pee into one's leg, fail to go to sleep, and check its tank in the morning. If the frog laid some eggs in the night, congratulations and/or condolences.
A 1938 study that used over 2,000 frogs yielded zero false positives, only a few false negatives, and a whole lot of nightmares. It's a miracle we ever switched to immunological testing kits, really. And maybe we shouldn't have. After the frogs were deemed obsolete, many battery laboratories released their ladies into the wild, introducing en masse an entirely new species to a bunch of fragile ecosystems. Since then, the African clawed frog has been found to be carriers of a deadly fungus, which has decimated around 200 other amphibian species. Let's hope we don't accidentally wipe out frog-kind because we were too lazy to keep peeing on them.
Doctors Would Diagnose Diabetes By How Your Pee Tastes
Again with the pee. While it's commonly thought that diabetes was invented in 1999 by Wilford Brimley, it's actually an ancient condition which was relatively rare in the time before Twinkies. Back in those pre-sugar-high days, the illness was very difficult to diagnose. After all, how would doctors measure insulin levels when they hadn't even figured out that washing their hands before surgery was probs a good idea? By drinking someone's urine, of course.
There are very few ways of observing diabetes physically, and ideally, you want to diagnose something before the patient starts losing toes anyway. But in the 17th century, another marker was discovered: Their pee is uncomfortably sweet. Patients with diabetes can't efficiently absorb sugar, thanks to a lack of insulin or resistance to it, which means some of that sweetness gets added to their lemonade factory. The first person in modern medicine to document the phenomenon, Thomas Willis, named this particular type diabetes mellitus, or "honey diabetes," after noting that the urine of his subjects tasted "wonderfully sweet." Who ever said you can't combine business and pleasure?
Still, his findings were critical to the modern medical establishment. There were even whimsical color wheels used to diagnose patients by the hue, smell, and yes, taste of their urine. (Note: If it's blue and you're not the lady who pees on the sanitary pads, go see a doctor.) This formed the basis of modern urinalysis, which was regarded by some at the time as new age hooey, unlike good old-fashioned healing like leeches or prayer. Willis was, of course, only the first white guy to notice this stuff; many ancient cultures before him were aware of that sweet, sweet diabetic pee. Most notably, ancient Hindu physician Sushruta observed the phenomenon as well when he noted ants swarming toward diabetic pee -- proving again that drinking urine was never a requirement, just a perk of the job.
Covering Yourself In Badass Tattoos Was An Early Form Of Acupuncture
Tattoos -- they're a great way to show off that you're artistic, romantic, or really into The Simpsons. They're also a great conversation starter, if you like all your conversations to start with someone saying "That looks like it hurt." There are so many reasons for us modern folk to get a tattoo, unlike our ancient ancestors, who only got inked for one reason: to make the ouchies stop.
In 1991, hikers stumbled upon the astonishingly well-preserved remains of the oldest known human mummy, nicknamed Otzi because he was found in the Otztal Alps and is just the cutest shriveled corpse they'd ever seen. But Otzi had a few surprises up his sleeves -- tattoo sleeves, to be specific. When researchers finished mapping his tattoos 24 years later (that's how much sick ink this legend had), the final tally was 61 distinct tattoos. That seems excessive.
The point, they soon realized, was probably less metal and more therapeutic. Scientists noticed that the tattoos corresponded to the locations of injuries and aging-induced degradation, which caused them to theorize that the tattoos represented a medical treatment similar to acupuncture. This means that Otzi's sharp healing predates the earliest-believed acupuncture usage in Asia by a whopping 2,000 years. He wasn't a badass body art enthusiast, but rather a doddering old coot with bad knees.
In fact, the bitchin' tats might have been an accidental side effect, even. It turns out the "ink" was fireplace ash, so it's possible it was nothing but a byproduct of a sterilization procedure. It was probably not until much later that intentional tattoo art became a thing, probably right after the first hunter-gatherer got treated for claw wounds that accidentally spelled out "I heart Mom" on his upper arm.
Otzi the Iceman has been the subject of several fascinating documentaries, such as this one from NOVA. Great story, worth the watch.
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For more, check out 7 Real (And Totally Insane) Medical Practices From History and The 10 Most Insane Medical Practices in History.
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