5 Ludicrous Old Medical Treatments That Actually Worked

What if we could pour sunlight into your blood? People tried it, and it worked
5 Ludicrous Old Medical Treatments That Actually Worked

We love looking at early faltering attempts at science because it gives us a chance to point and laugh. When we learn that some old doctor used to remove everyone’s teeth to cure madness, we know he was the real mad one, and we’re sure glad we weren’t around to run into him.

Those old medical treatments weren’t always as crazy as they sound, however. We abandoned them because we came up with better stuff, not because the treatments themselves had no merit to them. In fact, sometimes, the crazy old methods really healed people. 

Removing People’s Blood and Treating with Ultraviolet Rays

Exactly four years ago, the world was shutting down thanks to a spreading virus. It was a strange time, and most of us are embarrassed to have ever been part of it. Around a month into this, the president suggested a few strange possible treatments, earning much mockery. Perhaps an injection of disinfectant could do the trick, he said (some people responded by drinking bleach, though not as many as initially reported). He also suggested bringing ultraviolet light “inside the body,” which sounded even more absurd. You can’t inject light, critics noted. That doesn’t make sense. 

injecting heroin

Psychonaught/Wiki Commons

If someone ever talks about injecting light, they’re probably on heroin. 

However, there really was a treatment in the 1940s and 1950s that used UV light on infected patients. It was called ultraviolet blood irradiation, and it consisted of taking some blood out of the patient, blasting it with UV rays, then pumping it back in. It started intuitively enough, with the observation that UV disinfects surfaces, so maybe it can do something similar for infected blood. Early experiments showed that, nope, you can’t sterilize blood that way. Crazily enough, though, while the process didn’t work as intended, it did treat the illness. 

First, despite not being able to zap all germs as we’d hoped, it killed some, and this triggered an immune response, beyond the response already sparked by the live germs. Second, the light affected a bunch of dissolved substances in the blood, changing them for the better. Third, the UV hit a bunch of blood cells, and while this actually meant killing a bunch of blood cells, it was an overall net positive. UV gave the blood a jolt rather than fully scrubbing it, so there was fortunately no need to remove all the patient’s blood to make the process work. Just run five percent though the UV machine, and that did the trick.

Knott Hemo-Irradiator

Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology

So come, hook yourself up to the Knott Hemo-Irradiator.

Doctors used UV to treat pneumonia, tuberculosis and polio. Patients came away better, and plenty of people who’d otherwise have died survived. We later turned away from this tool, not because it worked poorly but because antibiotics replaced it. UV even has some advantages over antibiotics (it works on viruses, and there’s no evidence germs can grow resistant to it). And yes, researchers late in 2020 declared that it might be worth giving UV a chance at wrestling against COVID. 

This isn’t, by the way, because UV rays have miracle properties. It’s more a result of something called biphasic dose response, which says seemingly anything can convince the body to work better, if you only get the dose just right. So, come on, scientists, get to work figuring the right dosage for medicinal Thin Mints. We have faith in you.

Drop an Electric Fish on Their Head

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) sounds like a quack cure even in its modern form. Running electric shocks through someone’s head? We’ve seen that on TV — it’s a way to lobotomize troublemakers!


Now she’ll never be able to reveal the truth!

In reality, ECT is legit, causes zero pain and is effective on a handful of mental illnesses. Here as well, it’s a question of dosage: Licking power lines is dangerous, but the correct voltage applied to the skull is not. The biggest problem with ECT is it’s a treatment, not a cure, which means you have to keep doing it

But we’re not here to debate ECT, a practice that’s done regularly today. We’re here to talk about how people stumbled into ECT thousands of years ago, before they understood much of anything about either mental illness or electricity. This was the time of Ancient Rome, back in the first century. Even if they knew about electroshock therapy, they didn’t have generators that could create electricity. What they did have was fish. 

electric ray


Electric fish

That animal above is the electric ray, Narcine bancroftii. It’s like an electric eel, except it’s not an eel — it’s a ray. The emperor’s physician, Scribonius Largus, would place this live fish on the head of anyone suffering from severe migraines. The ray would shoot out some electricity, and a shock that might paralyze prey had a most healing effect on the headache sufferer. 

By the way, since no one really knew what electricity was back then, or for many years after that, they didn’t call the electric ray an “electric ray.” They called it a torpedo. That’s a word that means paralysis (torpor comes from the same root), and when people centuries later wanted a name for their new weapon that shot through water, they looked to that paralyzing fish. 

Giving Patients Malaria

Good news: In the last couple years, we finally developed a malaria vaccine. While it’s not fully effective, people will take any help they can get because this is a disease that kills half a million every year. Malaria isn’t something you want to catch. A hundred years ago, however, doctors gave it to patients on purpose.


David Clode

The doctor’s name was Moss Quito, M.D.

This was a treatment for syphilis. Malaria was often fatal, but insane late-stage syphilis was always fatal, so if the former could cure the latter, it was a fair trade. Once you know this was one disease countering another, this may sound like the famous story of Edward Jenner giving people cow pox to prevent smallpox, a predecessor to vaccines. But it was actually weirder than that. 

Inducing malaria was a form of what’s known as pyrotherapy. The agent of healing wasn’t the malarial parasites themselves but the fever that sprung up as a response. This fever burned up the syphilis, concluded doctors. You couldn’t achieve the same thing by merely heating the patient up, because when doctors tried (using electric currents, ones stronger than used in ECT), the patient cooked and died before the syphilis did. Pyrotherapy sounds like a type of restoration magic wielded by dark wizards, but it worked at kicking syphilis, and it won the doctor who pioneered it the 1927 Nobel Prize in medicine. 

via Wiki Commons

He later applied to be a Nazi, but fans would rather ignore that part of his life. 

For a while, the big stumbling block for malaria therapy was that hospitals didn’t have enough malaria. They took to cultivating malaria in previously uninfected patients, a breach of ethics so bad that doctors would like to just forget malariotherapy was ever a thing. Still, that wasn’t why the practice died out. Instead, this was one more tool made redundant by antibiotics. Antibiotics are great. They eliminate so many diseases — and so many treatments. 

Soak the Intestines in Wine

People 2,000 years ago, of course, didn’t have antibiotics. We didn’t know what germs were at all back then, so you might imagine we had no means of combatting them. And yet, the Roman physician Galen knew enough about infection to boil his instruments before sticking them in people’s bodies. Patients under his care fared pretty well as a result. 


Bernard Gagnon

Some died, but they didn’t all die, so he beat the competition.

When it came time to clean the actual patients, Galen could not use boiling water. Boiling people, we've established, is only a good idea if you want to cook them, and a stigma existed in Rome against cannibalism. So, when a gladiator’s torso ripped open and intestines spilled out, Galen would instead soak the guts in wine. The alcohol did a decent job at disinfecting the wound. 

Galen didn’t arrive at this solution through a study of what substances kill germs. Again, no one back then knew exactly what germs were (though they had some theories about “seeds” that transmit disease). No, Galen turned to wine because wine seemed like a marvelous substance. He wrote a lot about wine, talking about which varieties he liked best and making some scientific conclusions that haven’t quite held up.

Roman amphorae for wine

Szilas/Wiki Commons

The science has not aged like a fine wine.

Wine should be an ingredient in theriaca, said Galen, which was a substance that could cure anything. Red wine is good for people who are short on blood, since it looks so much like blood that it must help your body produce some more. Undiluted wine can cure you after a venomous animal bites you because venom cools your body, while wine heats it. He also wrote that “wine is unhelpful for children, but very useful to the elderly.” And okay, he got that one right. 

Run the Blood Through Someone Else

If your heart has stopped, you’re dead, so we’re impressed that you’re still reading right now. If surgeons operate on your heart, they need to stop it from beating, and if that kills you, that somewhat defeats the purpose of the operation. Today, we get around this by using a cardiopulmonary bypass pump, better known as a heart-lung machine. A mechanical pump pushes your blood around while your heart is taking a break, and mechanical oxygenators freshen the blood for you while you’re not breathing. 

cardiopulmonary bypass pump

Pereira, et al.

It’s like a Knott Hemo-Irradiator, but instead of adding UV, it adds O₂.

Before we had heart-lung machines, doctors tried other stuff. One method was hypothermia, cooling the body down so it could survive a little while without circulation. This worked, sometimes (freezing humans is safer than cooking them), but it gave surgeons just a tiny window of time to finish the operation. Complex heart surgery remained impossible.

In 1954, around the same time that the first heart-lung machines were being built, a surgeon came up with a new idea. His patient who needed heart surgery was three years old, and that got the doctor thinking. Before birth, a fetus is part of a parent and totally dependent on them. What if we could hook a baby back up to a parent, and have the adult pump blood and oxygenate their blood for them? Actually, it doesn’t have to be a baby. So long as the blood type’s a match, what if we could do this for older patients, too? 


Society of Thoracic Surgeons

“Mad? They called me mad? I’ll show them.”

Cross-circulation, as this process was called, clearly presented risks. It was dubbed the “only operation with the possibility of a 200 percent mortality.” To understand that statement, realize that the first successful kidney transplant wouldn’t happen till later that year — and even an organ transplant that kills both parties counts as only 100 percent mortality, because both the donor and recipient are patients. 

And yet, in the year between when cross-circulation was pioneered and when it was phased out in favor of bypass pumps, the human heart-lung machines all fared just fine. As for the heart patients who were hooked up to these volunteers, they didn’t all pull through, but roughly half did, which exceeded all expectations. These were all patients with congenital heart defects who may have died without surgery. 

The three-year-old who was the first cross-circulation patient? They fixed his ventricular defect, and he lived right up until 2018. He then donated his body to science, giving doctors a chance to cut open his heart once more, just for old times’ sake. 

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