How Vikings Used Onion Soup To Find Out If People Would Die

The soup tasted so bad, the patient welcomed death.
How Vikings Used Onion Soup To Find Out If People Would Die

Doctors used to have very primitive methods for diagnosing patients. For example, there was kickepathy, in which a doctor would just kick the patient hard in the stomach; if the patient yelled "ow," the doctor would conclude that they were likely still alive. On the battlefield, doctors would sometimes defer to a process known as locomotion: If the patient could get up and walk, fine, but if not, then they're as good as dead, there's no time look after them, we have to flee NOW.

Jokes aside, our ancestors were at least able to examine injured parties to try to ascertain the extent of the damage. This failed when it came to internal injuries. X-rays and MRIs were generally unavailable. Mostly, they just had to look at the outside of the patient and guess what was going on beneath the surface.

For the Vikings, if an arrow hit someone in the belly, the big question was whether it tore through all those organs in there. Possibly, a doctor could find out how deep the wound went by reaching in and poking around, but experience told them that that sort of probing often only made matters worse.

So here's the method they invented for diagnosing the patient. They'd feed the wounded man some soup cooked with lots of onions. Then the doctor would bend down and smell the wound. This part was very unpleasant for the smeller, but while the wound always smelled foul, it sometimes also smelled of onions. When it did, that meant that the wound had sliced open the guts, letting the chemical tracer onion soup leak out and escape into the wound. 

The treatment in such cases? The Vikings had none. No, when the wound smelled of onions, that meant no one would waste any more time on this lost cause. They'd save their herbal remedies for someone else who actually stood a chance of recovering. They left the oniony man to die, but at least he'd got to enjoy a hot last meal.

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Top image: Rainer Z/Wiki Commons

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