5 Old-Timey Medicines That Weren’t Complete Horse-Pucky
Ancient medicine is a popular punching bag, one I’ve driven numerous left hooks into for this very website. In a lot of cases, that’s for good reason. Those old doctors, in a lot of situations, were doing more trial and error than they were medicine. If you think people are distrustful of doctors now, just think how leery they would have been when they weren’t guaranteed to come back with all the pieces they went in with.
Not all ancient treatments were pure nonsense, though. Even if they didn’t know exactly what they were treating or why it went away, something that worked was definitely getting written down in blood-soaked notebooks. Now, looking back at some procedures and medicines that seem patently insane, we’re able to figure out that, unbeknownst to their appliers, the science behind them was surprisingly sound.
Here are five ancient bits of medicine that turned out not to be bullshit…
If you got injured and someone gave you a piece of bark to bite on, you’d probably think it was a distraction at best and preparation for amputation at worst. It would feel like the medical equivalent of getting handed a squeeze bottle full of Michael’s Secret Stuff. “Quick! Put this tree debris in your mouth and chew!” is not something that makes me feel confident about my general pain outlook.
But numerous ancient civilizations held willow bark in particularly high regard for pain treatment. Many years later, we’d find out that gnawing on a bit of willow actually was chemically sound, if inefficient. Willow bark is filled with salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. By pulping up some unpleasant wood bits, they were essentially taking nature’s Bayer. That same salicylic acid would later be isolated from willow bark by Johann Buchner and perfected by Felix Hoffman into the neat little pills future pain-feelers would pop.
Garlic for the Plague
The bubonic plague is nasty work. If you’re going to get a disease that will almost assuredly kill you, you’d hope it would at least be one that wouldn’t leave your corpse riddled with buboes. So by the time doctors offered to cram smushed garlic into your open bits, it’s not like there was much point in refusing. Today, we’d probably guess it was more of a strategy to keep other people from kissing very sick people than any genuine medical treatment.
Again, though, weird ancient doctors and their mysterious pastes were ahead of their time. They might not have known what the fuck “bacteria” was, but they’d stumbled onto a plant that was a genuine antibiotic. Crushed garlic created allicin, which is an impressive antimicrobial even by modern standards. This isn’t even a case of “maybe it might have helped,” given that garlic has now been found to possibly cure MRSA, a real motherfucker of an ailment that’s resistant to modern antibiotics.
This one is something that almost everybody knows survives to this day, and has probably participated in without argument: the analysis of urine as a form of diagnosis. If you’ve gotten a physical from any sort of modern doctor, you’ve probably been relegated to their bathroom and had to imagine a waterfall until you could top off a tiny plastic cup. But doctors have been politely asking for a bit of fresh pee all the way back to 4000 B.C.
What would make a look back in time at old-school urinalysis feel weird probably has to do with the lack of fancy medical language and their choice of container. Ancient doctors already realized that urine color, etc. could give clues as to what was ailing the pee-pee, they were just a little more rustic with it. Guy in a lab coat holding a little cup of piss with an official-looking sticker on it? Probably a doctor. Guy swishing around a big flask of piss in the candlelight? Looks more like a sommelier for the world’s grossest sex club.
Eating shit sounds like a prescription handed down by a high school bully, not a medical professional. Especially if your problems are gastrointestinal in nature, it doesn’t sound like a particularly convincing way to get less sick. A lot of cleanliness in society is based around keeping human waste as far away from food as possible, something the ancient Chinese concoction very diplomatically called “yellow soup” goes directly against.
The recipe for yellow soup was disgustingly simple: dried or fermented human stool, and water. Heat until the worst kind of golden-brown. I doubt it was a delicacy, but in its way, it was an early form of fecal transplantation (one of the rare cases where the modern nomenclature is way grosser). The access point is different these days, but however you get it there, planting healthy gut bacteria into an ill person’s mouth-anus expressway is highly effective.
Our last ancient tincture is unique in how it’s aged versus the study of medicine. That’s because, unlike others on this list, it’s not something that was an early version of a cure or procedure that’s now widely accepted. In the case of Bald’s Eyesalve, something that’s steps away from an ancient potion out of the D&D handbook, it seems that ancient chemists might have stumbled on a perfect combination of varied strange ingredients.
The basic ingredients here are garlic (yum), onion (yum), cow bile (oh no) and wine (yum?). Mix those together according to the manuscript and you’ve got a batch of Bald’s eyesalve, so named for its use on eye injuries. Now, efficacy aside, you’d better have a sterling-silver fucking tongue to convince me to rub garlic-onion-paste into my eyes, but the healing power is undeniable, even by modern metrics. The most fascinating detail, though, is that when those ingredients are isolated, they don’t seem to work nearly as well, suggesting these ancient medicine men somehow managed to mix up a genuine, top-notch medicine with their mortars and pestles.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.