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.
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"You hold my gun, Janice; I'll distribute the thermometers and month-old chicken salad."