5 Old-Timey Theories About Health That Were Dumb AF
Old-timey medicine, like old-timey anything-except-mustaches, seems laughably backwards nowadays. But hey, that's the power of hindsight. It's entirely possible that some of the practices we're engaging in right now will become the subject of a snarky listicle in a century or so. But just as the future will surely mock us, so too must we mock the past. Gotta mock something!
Scholars Used To Believe Wombs Moved Around The Body Like Parasites
Back in the good ol' days, when men were men and women were unholy mysteries that possibly came from beyond the stars, things were a bit simpler. The medical establishment had a one-size-fits-all diagnosis for women who had the temerity to fall ill without the permission of their husbands: They were surely suffering from a bad case of "hysteria," and medical science had a solution for that.
So what causes these bizarre illnesses that only afflict women? Why, it's their wombs slithering about their bodies like escaped octopi, of course! This "fact" comes courtesy of ancient physicians like Plato, Hippocrates, and Aretaeus of Cappadocia -- the latter of whom wrote a paper (parchment?) about how the womb was capable of going anywhere it liked, from the heart to the lungs to the kidney to the spleen.
The symptoms presented by the host (seems a better fit than "patient" in this case) depended on where the womb lived that day. If it was trying to escape via the throat, she would suffer from sluggishness, vertigo, and a godawful headache. If it was heading down and out, she would suffer a "strong sense of choking, loss of speech, and a very sudden incredible death."
Fortunately, doctors of the day had a way to wrangle the womb back into place: forcing something fragrant through the mouth or vagina. This cure was based on the idea that a womb "delights in fragrant smells and advances towards them ... and has an aversion to fetid smells and flees from them." This comes from Aretaeus, who clearly thought he was writing a horror movie.
Chinese Doctors Believed That Animal Bile Cured Everything
For much of human history, "medicine" was simply a fancy word for inserting random objects into our bodies to see what they did to us. Although come to think of it, that describes a few other practices as well. So for hundreds of years, we solved our medical woes with copious amounts of animal bile, natch.
This practice began during China's Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BCE), and involved the use of animal bile for everything from salves to drugs to antiseptics. Medical texts from this time ("Prescriptions For Fifty-Two Types Of Diseases" and the "Classic Of Herbal Medicine") describe the first types of bile to be used in a medical capacity -- that of dogs, oxen, and carp. A popular anecdote from the time describes a surgeon treating an abscess by draining it of pus and then filling the cavity with dog bile, which caused the abscess to shrink and eventually heal.
Animal bile was such a popular form of medicine that physicians developed a sprawling compendium listing the appropriate bile to slather over any kind of injury. Patients suffering from jaundice, for instance, were prescribed bear and ox bile. For hemorrhoids, they'd need either duck, goose, hedgehog, or turtle. Constipation? That's a job for a pig. Alcoholism? Fox. Food poisoning? Parrot. Skin rashes? Python. Erectile dysfunction? Unicorn.
Basically Everyone Thought Worms Lived In Your Teeth
Throughout history, countless cultures have believed that dental problems like toothaches and cavities were caused not by poor hygiene, but by worms having infected the afflicted tooth.
But every culture had a different cure. In Europe during the Middle Ages, you could expect to have your worm-infested cavity filled with herbs ... or a red-hot needle. In China, doctors would slice your gums open and remove the worms for a small fee ... neglecting to mention, of course, that the "worms" were fakes they'd planted mid-operation.
In other places, fumigating the mouth with henbane was a popular cure-all, despite henbane being a psychoactive that can cause hallucinations, heart trouble, and death. It seems like an extreme solution for dental problems, but if we genuinely believed our teeth were haunted by devil worms, we'd probably be down for that too.
Beards Were Thought To Filter Out Airborne Particles
In the 1850s, nothing got Victorian dames all hot and steamy like a man with a clean-shaven face. Going beardless was a reliable indicator of class, and therefore wealth. That all changed in the mid-1850s as a result of two discoveries: the germ theory of disease, which posited that our health can be damaged by microscopic beasties, and the knowledge that swallowing mouthfuls of coal smoke isn't good for your health.
In response to this, doctors suggested a novel way for men to protect themselves: Just grow a veritable forest of beard. The idea was that hair would act as a filter and capture any impurities before they could be inhaled, and you'd be perfectly safe. Obviously, your beard would then become a deadly biological weapon stored on your face, but that sounds like the barber's problem.
Weapon Wounds Could Be Healed by Applying Medicine ... To The Weapon
The concept of the "powder of sympathy" was first popularized in 1658 by Sir Kenelm Digby, a nobleman/philosopher/apparent warlock. The idea was pretty simple: If someone gets stabbed with a sword, a mystical bond then links the blood from the injury (and in the patient's body) to the blood on the weapon itself, a concept known in occult circles as "sympathetic power." Therefore, patients could be healed faster by applying medicine not to the wound itself, but to the weapon that caused it. The sympathetic power linking the two would communicate any healing properties across the gap.
Hey, we said the idea was "pretty simple," not smart.
Digby presented his idea at a scientific conference and somehow was not laughed off the very face of the planet. Johann Baptist Van Helmont, a Belgian physicist who carried on Diggy's work, was not so lucky. He wound up persecuted by the Catholic Church for promoting superstitious concepts like divine healing, which strikes us as a little hypocritical.
Adam Wears is on Twitter and Facebook, and has a newsletter dedicated to depressing history facts. It's not as heartbreakingly sad as it sounds, promise!
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