Reader's Digest (India) - - Contents -

For 2400 years, pa­tients have be­lieved that doc­tors were do­ing good; for 2300 years, they were wrong, ac­cord­ing to his­to­rian David Woot­ton, in Strange Medicine: A Shock­ing His­tory of Real Med­i­cal Prac­tices Through the Ages. Here, the re­cently pub­lished book re­veals some wacky treat­ments once con­sid­ered cut­ting-edge.


In an­cient Egypt, a dead mouse was placed on the tooth of a per­son in den­tal dis­tress. In an­cient Rome, toothaches were treated by rub­bing one’s mouth with a hip­popota­mus’s left tooth and eat­ing the ashes of a wolf’s head, wrote Pliny the Elder.


One rem­edy from 13th­cen­tury sur­geon Jehan Yper­man: Smear the per­son with a paste of mer­cury, ashes, the spit of a child, and lard.


In 1880, the med­i­cal jour­nal The Lancet pub­lished a let­ter from a doc­tor that hailed get­ting struck by light­ning as a mir­a­cle cure. It cited the story of a farmer hit by a bolt that ren­dered him un­con­scious. When he awoke, his can­cer was in re­mis­sion. The writer pre­dicted “fric- tional elec­tric­ity” would be a “pow­er­ful ther­a­peu­tic agent in the dis­per­sion of can­cer­ous for­ma­tions.”


Nine­teenth-cen­tury doc­tors pre­scribed the “blue pill” for many is­sues— even Abraham Lin­coln was be­lieved to have taken it for “melan­choly.” (No, it wasn’t Vi­a­gra.) The pill con­tained mer­cury, a po­tent neu­ro­toxin. Taken two or three times a day, it would have de­liv­ered a dose nearly 9000 times to­day’s ac­cepted lev­els.


A per­son stam­mered be­cause his tongue was too short or in­cor­rectly at­tached to his mouth, posited French doc­tor Hervez Che­goin in 1830. He thought only “me­chan­i­cal means” could fix the is­sue and did surg­eries for it.


Af­ter World War II, psy­chi­a­trists gave in­sulin to plunge a pa­tient with men­tal ill­ness into a coma and then brought him back. The in­sulin de­prived the brain of fuel, which killed brain cells. This pro­ce­dure sup­pos­edly re­duced pa­tients’ hos­til­ity and ag­gres­sion.

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