4 Medical Misunderstandings With Horrific Consequences
If you've ever had a doctor misdiagnose your syphilis as a bad sunburn because he doesn't believe anyone would sleep with you, you know that medical mistakes can happen. Medical professionals, like anyone, occasionally get things wrong, and whole television shows do nothing but recount the hardships of sick people trying to get their weird illnesses correctly treated.
Ask your cable provider if the OWN Network is right for you.
But no matter how unlucky you are or how many parasitic brain-worms your doctor misses during your yearly checkup, you can still be grateful you don't live in a time when medical misunderstandings would occasionally cause the horrible deaths of thousands of people. For example ...
Civil War Doctors Fight Poop With More Poop
Whenever modern people want to talk about dumb medicine habits from the past, we use bloodletting as an example. Before the acceptance of germ theory, many doctors thought that illness was caused by an imbalance or buildup of different fluids in the body, a theory known as "heroic medicine." Cut open a vein and let out some blood, the thinking went, and you could restore a patient to balanced fluids and good health. Plus, it was metal as fuck.
Look at that shit.
But bloodletting wasn't the only treatment popular during heroic medicine's reign. It's just the one we're comfortable talking about. See, blood is gross, but at least you can bring the stuff up when you're discussing history over a beef stew dinner. This isn't the case with another, far more disgusting treatment that was also used in the time of bloodletting: laxatives. Lots and lots and lots of laxatives.
That's right, alongside bloodletting, old-timey doctors gave patients "purgatives" to purge their bodies of disease-causing fluids in order to treat ... well, just about anything. As late as the Civil War, purgatives were still being used as a way to help injured soldiers expel "irritating food or secretions" and poop their way to good health.
The Horrible Consequences
Anyone who has played Oregon Trail should know why combining infectious disease with laxatives is the worst idea since someone first decided to go to Oregon. All those conditions with normal-sounding names like dysentery are just a polite way of saying "you are going to shit yourself until you die of dehydration."
It's all downhill from here, dude.
This poop-killer was fond of doing its thing in crowded, unhygienic conditions, such as war camps: up until very recently, more soldiers died of dysentery than were killed in combat. And the Civil War wasn't an exception. Camps were plagued by what doctors at the time called "flux," but which was really a bacterial infection carried by tainted food and water. Add in some 19th-century purgative treatments, and it was like pouring gasoline on someone that was already on fire, except that burning to death leaves you with more dignity, even if your pants burn off first. Because of this unholy combination of unsanitary camp conditions and literally shitty medical treatment, Civil War soldiers suffered 2 million cases of dysentery and almost 60,000 deaths.
And if that doesn't ram home the "war is hell" message, consider that one of the most popular purgatives of the time was a drug called calomel, which contained mercury. So if you were lucky, you might also have had time to develop mercury-poisoning symptoms, like missing teeth and "hideous facial deformities" before you shat yourself to death. Strangely, this stuff is missing from most of the Civil War reenactments I've seen.
"You hold my gun, Janice; I'll distribute the thermometers and month-old chicken salad."
Explorers Fight Vitamin Deficiency by Destroying Vitamins
Scurvy is the gross, gum-rotting, teeth-falling-out disease you get when you don't have enough Vitamin C in your diet. As we've mentioned on Cracked before, humanity was aware for many hundreds of years that scurvy could be cured with lemon juice or fresh fruits, even if we didn't know exactly why that worked (vitamins weren't discovered until 1912). But, like a sitcom where everyone learns a lesson at the end of an episode only to regain their character flaws the next week, the cure for scurvy has been discovered, forgotten, and then rediscovered repeatedly throughout human history.
And at the beginning of the 20th century, humanity was in one of its "scurvy, how does it work?" periods. A series of unfortunate coincidences had raised doubts that citrus juice was the wonder cure the past said it was. Meanwhile, a physician on a long Arctic expedition had observed that the disease could be prevented by consuming fresh polar bear meat. Maybe, the doctor theorized while rubbing his manly physician mustache, scurvy was actually a form of food poisoning due to spoiled meat.
"Look at this meat. It contains, like, so many scurvies."
The Horrible Consequences
In 1902, an Antarctic expedition led by Robert Scott decided to follow the good Polar Bear Doctor's advice. The explorers figured they could safely go without fresh fruit as long as the meat they ate was free of scurvy-germs, and one way of making sure the meat could be stored without spoilage was to boil it. But despite their clever reliance on boiled meat, every man on the expedition soon hopped on board the Scurvy Train and rode its toothless rails straight to Debilitating Illness Central. They survived, but Scott's faith in the new scurvy theories went tragically unchecked: his next expedition to the South Pole, in 1911, killed absolutely everyone involved, and scurvy was at least partially to blame. What the hell happened? Were the polar bears lying to us?
"That windproof wool tunic totally does not make you look fat."
It turned out that the doctor was correct about fresh meat preventing scurvy: the organ meat of animals can provide sufficient Vitamin C for a healthy diet, which is why Inuits can survive in freezing climates without any Jamba Juice franchises nearby. Boiling that meat, however, is a pretty good way to break down the Vitamin C it contains, and it gradually sucks away the meat's scurvy-fighting powers until it's as weak as a movie hero at the end of Act 2. So, next time you're trapped in an icy wasteland and your bloodied teeth are falling like autumn leaves, for god's sake try not to cook anything.
Cure for Deadly Skin Disease Is Found, No One Cares
In the early 20th century, a terrible disease tore through the southern parts of the United States like the disasters in an usually slow-acting Roland Emmerich movie. It was called pellagra, and it caused hideous skin lesions, dementia, and the eventual death of around 40 percent of the people who contracted it. Nobody knew what caused the illness until 1914, when a Hungarian immigrant doctor called Joseph Goldberger proposed an explanation: pellagra was caused by the poor diet common in parts of the South, where people ate mostly corn, molasses, and fatty meat. To test his theory, Goldberger conducted experiments in several pellagra-stricken orphanages and soon eliminated the condition just by switching up the children's food.
"I know, sweetie. I miss Pig 'n' Cob Surprise too."
Nearby spectators realized Goldberger was right, hoisted the man up on their shoulders, and paraded him around America. Just, like, all of America. That is totally what happened.
The Horrible Consequences
Wait! If pellagra was caused by a bad Southern diet like Goldberger said, that meant there must be something seriously wrong with the regions producing all these pellagra sufferers. Hell, these states must be starving their populations! Politicians immediately objected to the idea of a "famine" in their home states and to Goldberger's suggestion of Red Cross aid to help them out. One senator from Georgia insisted that when his state was suffering from a famine "the rest of the world will be dead," which was charmingly optimistic for a guy whose people were dropping dead from widespread food-leprosy.
Goldberger tried valiantly to prove his case. He injected himself with blood from pellagra victims to prove the disease wasn't infectious. He and his colleagues went as far as swallowing skin scales and feces from pellagra sufferers, but nothing helped, and the disease was still at large when the poor guy died in 1929, known for all time as that weird foreign doctor who angered half the country and ate leper poop.
"Joseph Goldberger. He Hated Corn, Freedom, and America."
It wasn't until 1937 that the exact bad guy behind pellagra was discovered: a deficiency of the nutrient niacin, also known as Vitamin B3. Turned out that a new milling method developed in the early 20th century was accidentally removing a lot of the niacin from corn, causing the wave of deficiency in the South. The government finally realized that Goldberger was right about the diet thing and started fortifying bread with niacin in 1941, and pellagra vanished in the United States. But that didn't help the 27,000 goddamn people who died of a curable disease between 1915 and 1925 because a few politicians were feeling butthurt.
Dumb Experiment Causes Baby-Themed Horror
Some time ago, a bunch of researchers were studying the response of newborn babies to pain stimuli, probably because the researchers were never loved as children. They found that, when small babies' limbs were pricked by pins, the babies didn't move away like older children did. Rather than deciding that it was because babies are uncoordinated or just kind of dumb, the researchers blamed the fact that infant brains are not yet fully myelinated: their neurons lack a protective coating that helps send nerve signals efficiently. And this lack of myelination, the researchers concluded, meant that those lucky infant bastards didn't really feel pain at all.
The Horrible Consequences
Doctors concluded that baby-brains didn't require pain treatment during medical procedures in the way that adults and older children did. It became standard for babies undergoing major surgery to be given a muscle relaxant to stop them from thrashing around on the table and ... nothing else.
"Meh, this guy's brain doesn't look too sharp either. I'm off to get a taco."
Operating on an unanesthetized baby sounds like the kind of thing you'd do only if you were an unrealistically evil film villain. But remember that, unlike in the movies, knocking a person unconscious -- even in a controlled setting like surgery -- is actually quite dangerous. If babies were chilling out there in a painless baby-world, doctors figured, why take a risk by drugging them unnecessarily? And since most babies can't yell, "What the fuck is wrong with you?!" and threaten to beat up the doctor after waking from surgery, no one realized the mistake until several decades later, when new research found that high levels of stress hormones were produced during these "painless" surgeries, and that this severe stress made babies far more likely to die.
Now, when thinking about all the historical horrors in this article, it's important to remember how close to our own world they really were. The last Civil War soldier died in 1956. Pellagra wasn't eliminated until after many of our grandparents were already born. And some of our distant ancestors were probably still alive when doctors finally started using anesthesia on newborns, way back in 1987.
Wait, what? Holy crap, I was alive in 1987. Those scalpels could have been cutting their way into my own frail, defenseless baby limbs while Van Halen played softly in the background! Even if you're reading this and you weren't alive back then, chances are you only just missed the baby-torture window, just like you missed being old enough to have a full awareness of awful, awful '90s hair.
It's not as bad as being operated on without anesthetic, but it's a distant echo of that horror.
How the hell did this happen? That pin-prick study was published way back in 1941, and yet somehow American doctors kept torturing infants right up until the year The Simpsons first appeared on air. Maybe it's because knowledge doesn't travel quickly in medical circles: newer, more accurate studies about infant pain were being published in neurological journals, but most doctors treating small children didn't read those journals and just kept doing what they were already familiar with. So, next time you're going in for surgery, try to sneak a quick look at your anesthesiologist's office first to make sure it contains the latest issues of Not Causing Fucking Ungodly Pain Monthly.