5 Strange Medical Practices That Will Leave You Speechless
The medical practices of our ancestors were painful, horrific and often caused more harm than good. But, many of these insane practices are still used in modern medicine today. From drilling holes in patients heads to treating syphilis with mercury, here are 5 of the strangest medical practices.
Bloodletting is regarded as one of the oldest medical practices and is still used in special cases today. Bloodletting is the removal of blood in order to cure disease. It was believed that a surplus of ‘humours’ or body fluids could lead to illness. Many also thought that veins and arteries were supposed to carry air, not blood. A practitioner would use a metal or wooden lancet to extract the blood from veins. However, leeches also became a popular tool, sparing patients from the horrific and unsanitary lancets. In Medieval times bloodletting was used to treat illnesses such as hypertension and epilepsy. When in 1163 the church forbade monks and priests, who would often take on the role of doctor, from performing bloodlettings, many barbers took their place. The red and white poles outside barbershops show the legacy of the old bloodletting practice, with white symbolizing the bandages and the red symbolizing the blood of their patients.
In the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that the body had a close relationship with the environment and as such reflected the heavens. Medical Astrology became popular in Europe during the 12th and 13th Centuries, as Arabic texts on the subject had been translated to Latin. The four ‘humours’ (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) within the body were thought to correspond to the four elements (Earth, Water, Air and Fire). By close analysis of the stars, medieval doctors hoped to explain the causes of diseases and how to treat them. This proved to be a difficult task. Many doctors carried star charts, to help them determine when to treat a disease. For example, if they believed bloodletting would cure a disease, the chart would help determine at what point in the astrological cycle the procedure should be undertaken.
Mercury Cures All
The many dangers of mercury poisoning are well known in modern medicine. In the Ancient and Medieval world however, mercury was seen as a magical element, which could cure disease and extend life. The Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang was given mercury pills by his doctors, as many alchemists believed that mixing mercury with sulfur would grant eternal life. Ancient Greeks believed that mercury was the first ‘matter’ and from it, all other elements could be derived. In the 15th Century through to the early 20th century, mercury was used to treat the “great pox” or syphilis. Topical ointments were often administered by barbers. This of course led to kidney failure, loss of teeth and death in many cases. Thankfully, this practice died out after the discovery of antibiotics as a treatment for syphilis.
Trepanning is the act of drilling a hole into the skull to treat medical illnesses, or as a ritual act. Trepanning is said to be one of the oldest surgical procedures, along with circumcision. It was believed that drilling a hole into the skull opened up the ‘third eye’, allowing spirits to enter (light letting) or leave. In the 18th Century, trepanning was used to treat a wide range of illnesses, including epilepsy and a multitude of mental illnesses. Due to the unsanitary conditions in these times, patients had very poor survival rates, due to surgical infections. Despite the many problems with this practice, emergency room doctors still use this method today on patients who have experienced head trauma. In recent years, there have been instances of people engaging in self-inflicted trepanning. Most notably Amanda Fielding who videoed her self-surgery and ran for parliament in 1979, on the Trepanning for the National Health platform.
Cataract Surgery with Needles
Eye surgery today can be frightening! But in the middle ages, cataract surgery was truly horrifying. The surgeon would take a needle or a knife directly to the patient’s eye. This procedure would force the eye lens out of its capsule, to the bottom of the eye. Ouch!
But thanks to the popularity of Islamic medicine, cataracts were able to be removed by suction and this gruesome practice could end.