The History of Medicine

This is not a full scale history of medicine – more a look at some of the wild medical practices and old-timey treatments performed by our “doctor” forefathers.

Cocaine for Hay Fever

Many believed that allergy symptoms caused by pollen could be alleviated with the application of cocaine, as described in this article here. This was discovered to not be the case. Dr. George Frederick Laidlaw (a recognized leading pathologist of the homoeopathic school in New York) is quoted in multiple articles saying, “If you can’t cure it without cocaine, you’d better keep the hay fever.” You can read one of those articles here.

Heading reads “Cocaine in Hay Fever”. Text includes an article the therapeutical uses of cocaine, including hay fever

“Cocaine in Hay Fever,” Savannah Morning (Savannah, GA), August 5, 1885.

Treat Malaria with a Magic Word

There are a lot of strange historical treatments for malaria, but one cure was a magical charm recommended by a Roman physician in the 3rd Century CE. Patients were told to write Abracadabra over and over on a piece of paper with one less letter on each line, until the letters formed a triangle with just an A at the bottom. Then, they had to tie the paper with flax and wear it around their necks for nine days before tossing it into an east-running stream. If that didn’t work, they were supposed to rub themselves with lion fat.

Treat Syphilis with Mercury

From about the 16th century to the 20th century, mercury was the primary treatment for syphilis, either eaten or applied to the body. It was also used to treat less severe illnesses, like constipation. In fact, Lewis and Clark’s men consumed so many pills containing mercury chloride that historians and archeologists can find the places where they camped just based on the mercury content of the area.

By the 18th century, doctors were aware of mercury poisoning, but they continued using it to treat syphilis—they just limited the amounts that were used.

Take Care of Heart Palpitations with a Vinegar-Soaked Rag

For heart palpitations, Wesley’s treatments included “drink a pint of cold water,” “apply outwardly a Rag dipt In vinegar,” and “be electrified.”

Avoid Tipsiness Using Ground Up Bird Beaks

In ancient Assyria, bird beaks were ground up, combined with myrrh, and eaten. Supposedly, this helped you avoid getting tipsy, though it seems more painful than a hangover.

Cure a Hangover with Tea Made of Poop or Owl Eggs

Legend has it that one popular Wild West hangover cure was rabbit poo tea. Pliny, meanwhile, suggested drinking owl eggs mixed with wine for three days to get rid of a hangover.

Eat Pickled Sheep’s Eyes to Cure a Hangover

During Genghis Khan’s days, the Mongols ate pickled sheep’s eyes for breakfast to get rid of a hangover. The practice continues today, though the eyes are followed by a glass of tomato juice.

Use Saffron to Sober Up—and Cheer Up

The Red Book of Hergest is a Welsh manuscript from around 1382 that contains some herbal remedies, including one to remove drunkenness that involves “eat[ing] bruised saffron with spring water.” Sadness could be cured by saffron, too, at least in moderation—according to Hergest, “If you would be at all times merry, eat saffron in meat or drink, and you will never be sad: but beware of eating over much, lest you should die of excessive joy.”


Here’s an advertisement promoting cigarettes as a cure for asthma. It’s common knowledge now that they do the opposite, and can cause asthma flare-ups. What’s interesting about this treatment is that it was already known that cigarettes had undesirable effects. In this article, Dr. W.A. Evans reported that, in an experiment conducted by researchers Parkinson and Koefod, the subjects became “breathless on exertion. Some have pains around the heart, some have palpitation, and others suffer from swimming in the head.”


Another treatment that was believed to be a cure for asthma was chloroform. This article claims that one treatment with chloroform completely relieved all symptoms of asthma. This belief would eventually result in the deaths of patients who had overdosed during an asthma attack. Here’s one example of such an incident.

Heading reads “Death was accidental” sub-heading “Finding of Coroner’s Jury in Case of Mrs. Pierson. Overdose of Chloroform.” Text reads, “It had been taken to relieve the pain following a very sever attack of asthma.”

“Death was Accidental,” Arizona Republican (Phoenix, AZ), June 27, 1911.

Smoke Enemas

Tobacco smoke enemas were considered a successful treatment for cholera and were recommended as an alternative remedy to opium. The exact procedure varied, and in some instances a pint of boiling, tobacco-infused water was administered into the intestines. It was even reported that “hundreds of lives might have been spared by the tobacco enema.”

Cure Toothaches with Electricity

Wesley also suggests that patients with toothaches be electrified. The idea of electrotherapy was fairly new in the 1700s, but it was used regularly until the early 1900s for illnesses like epilepsy, paralysis, impotence, tapeworms, and more. Some people just got electrotherapy for general wellness.

Milk transfusions

In the late 19th century, milk was believed to be the perfect substitute for blood, and the fatty/oily qualities would become white blood cells. However, while a few instances of this procedure were successful, many resulted in death. In one instance, the injection of milk dropped the patient’s pulse immediately, to the point where they had to be resuscitated with a combination of morphine and whiskey. The patient only lived ten days after the operation.

Prevent Nosebleeds with the Aid of a Red-Hot Poker or Bloodletting

To prevent nosebleeds, Wesley recommends, “hold[ing] a red hot poker under the nose or steep[ing] a linen rag in sharp vinegar, burn[ing] it, and blow[ing] it up the nose with a Quill.”

In Wesley’s day, someone with nosebleeds might also get blood removed from another part of their body. There is documentation going back to around 200 CE recommending that someone with nosebleeds have their elbow bled. Back then, it was believed that every person had four humours in their body: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood—and any illness could be boiled down to an imbalance of humours. Bloodletting was one of the therapies that was supposed to put them back in balance. During mediaeval times in Europe, bloodletting was used for the plague, smallpox, and gout.

Get Rid of Bruises With Powder Made From Human Bodies

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the use of human bodies in medical remedies became more popular than ever in Europe. They appeared in medicine for headaches, epilepsy, and more. Egyptian tombs and graveyards were looted for the bodies. If you had a bruise or other ailment, you were supposed to put it on your skin or turn it into a powder and ingest it via a drink. French King Francis I and Francis Bacon both used it.


This procedure involved the transplantation of the interstitielle gland from a chimpanzee into an 80-year-old man, in hopes of returning to him his physical vigour. This article details the procedure, quoting the inventor, Dr. Serge Voronoff, saying,  “This gland, being vital to the male organism, it was naturally impossible to transfer from man to man. This led me to go to the nearest species of monkeys which has been used so successfully in thyroid experiments.” Later on, this procedure was debunked.

Cure Everything from Arthritis to Impotence with Radium

Radium was once considered a legitimate medical treatment. The ailments it supposedly cured included arthritis, impotence, and ageing. The Revigator, an early 20th century crock that combined water with radium, was placed in hundreds of thousands of American households. Now we know that radium doesn’t cure ageing; it puts people at risk of radiation sickness. Users of the Revigator also had arsenic and lead leach out into their water, which wasn’t great.

Soothing Syrup

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was a popular remedy for babies experiencing anything from teething to diarrhoea. So what were the secret ingredients in these 25-cent cure-alls? According to this article, a heavy percentage of alcohol and morphine is the answer. Later on, this soothing syrup, along with others, was condemned. In this article, they are given the label “baby killers,” and the article advises that, “if you value your child’s health and life, never use any of these preparations.”

Image depicts a woman in a chair holding an infant she is giving the medicine to, a child is by her side. Text surrounding the image reads, “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup should always be used for children teething. It soothes the child, softens the gums, allays all pain, cures wind colic, and is the best remedy for diarrhoea. Twenty-five cents a bottle.” On either side of the image, it lists the years 1840 and 1908.

“Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup,” Palisadian (Cliffside Park, NJ), July 01, 1907.

Treat Epilepsy with a Powder Made of Hair and Deer Bones

The Book of Phisick also contains a remedy for patients with epilepsy. Cook a strong man’s hair with a deer leg-bone, turn it into powder, then eat it leading up to the new moon. (For a long time, people have debated whether the moon affects seizures. As recently as 2004, there was an article published in the journal Epilepsy and Behavior titled “The influence of the full moon on seizure frequency: myth or reality?” For the record, they found no connection between the full moon and the frequency of epileptic seizures.)

Cure Swollen Eyes with the Eyes of a Crab

According to Bald’s, to treat swollen eyes, take a live crab and cut its eyes out, throw the crab back into the water, then apply its eyes “on the neck of the man who hath need.”

Cure Typhus Through Prayer

Typhus had a more religiously oriented treatment in the 10th century. A patient should go outside, write a prayer on a piece of paper, then hold it to their left breast.

Treat Asthma with a Diet of Boiled Carrots

In Primitive Physick, or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases, first published in the late 1740s, British evangelist John Wesley suggested “a fortnight on boiled carrots only” to treat asthma.

Whale Hotel

This article from 1899 reports on a hotel in Australia where you could go for rheumatoid arthritis. In this treatment, whenever a nearby whale died, patients could be rowed to the whale. Then, the whale would be cut up, and a narrow hole made in the body. The patient would then lay down in the carcass for around two hours. This process allegedly relieved soreness and inflammation, and this may be the best part: the treatment was reported to be discovered by, “a drunken man, who was staggering along the beach near the whaling station at Twofold Bay, and who, seeing a dead whale cut open, took a header into the decomposing blubber.” You can read the full article here.

Robert Liston

Robert Liston FRCSE, FRCS, FRS  was a British surgeon. Liston was noted for his speed and skill in an era prior to anaesthetics, when speed made a difference in terms of pain and survival. He was the first Professor of Clinical Surgery at University College Hospital in London and performed the first public operation utilising modern anaesthesia in Europe.

While Liston’s pioneering contributions are paid tribute within popular culture such as Richard Gordon, they are best known within the medical fraternity and related disciplines.

  • Liston became the first Professor of Clinical Surgery at University College Hospital in London in 1835.
  • He performed the first public operation utilising modern anaesthesia, ether, in Europe on 21 December 1846 at the University College Hospital. His comment at the time: “This Yankee dodge beats mesmerism hollow”, referring to William T. G. Morton‘s experimentations with ether as an anaesthetic for extraction of teeth.  See the History of general anaesthesia.
  • He invented see-through isinglass sticking plaster, bulldog forceps (a type of locking artery forceps), and a leg splint used to stabilise dislocations and fractures of the femur, and still used today.

Liston’s most famous case

Although Richard Gordon’s 1983 book pays tribute to other aspects of Liston’s character and legacy as noted elsewhere in this article, it is his description of some of Liston’s most famous cases which has primarily made its way into what is known of Liston in popular culture. Gordon describes what he calls Liston’s most famous case in his book, as quoted verbatim below.

“Amputated the leg in under 212 minutes (the patient died afterwards in the ward from hospital gangrene; they usually did in those pre-Listerian days). He amputated in addition the fingers of his young assistant (who died afterwards in the ward from hospital gangrene). He also slashed through the coattails of a distinguished surgical spectator, who was so terrified that the knife had pierced his vitals he fainted from fright (and was later discovered to have died from shock).”

This episode has since been dubbed as the only known surgery in history with a 300 percent mortality rate. The situation that Gordon labels “Liston’s most famous case” has been described as apocryphal. No primary sources confirm that this surgery ever took place.


Robert Liston

10 Strange Medical Practices from History

30 Strange Old-Timey Medical Treatments

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