I was initially going to title this essay “Folk Medicine.” But some of what I’ve discussed already falls under that header, and there are plenty of other medical treatments that were once the stock in trade of the most learned physicians in the world, despite being absolute nonsense. So instead you get scare quotes — and buckle in, folks, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride through the discredited corners of the medical profession.
For starters, herbs were far from the only thing used as medicine. It’s not much of an exaggeration (or maybe not an exaggeration at all) to say that if you can eat it, drink it, inhale it, rub it on your skin, or shove it up an orifice, then somebody, somewhere, at some point in time has tried it as a treatment for disease. The best of these were mostly harmless; the worst killed people outright.
Take minerals, for example. Lots of ancient rulers and nobility consumed gold, on the assumption that its incorruptibility meant it was somehow the perfect medicine. Or cinnabar: it has the magical ability to exude a liquid when heated, which fascinated alchemists in both Europe and China. The fact that cinnabar is mercury sulfide, and the liquid in question is pure mercury, didn’t prevent them from thinking that consuming it could bring immortality — or at the very least treat syphilis, sometimes with symptoms worse than the disease itself.
Animals have been co-opted for making remedies as well. If your problem is an insufficiency of protein or iron or some such, this may do you some good . . . but the muscle tissue and organs of an animal aren’t the only parts that got used. Rhinoceros are at risk of extinction not just because of climate change and habitat loss, but because their horns are reputed in some traditions to have therapeutic value. (Not as an aphrodesiac, though: that appears to be a popular misconception.) Horns, antlers, bones, fur, eyeballs, testicles; even urine and feces show up in historical medical texts, which is horrifying to consider.
Some medicines went in via less conventional routes. There can legitimately be treatments delivered via enema (fluid into the rectum), suppository (solid medication into the rectum, vagina, or urethra), or insufflation (gas into the lungs) but have you ever heard the phrase “blowing smoke up someone’s ass”? Doctors literally used to blow smoke into a patient’s rectum. It’s unclear to me whether the stimulant effects of tobacco smoke introduced by that route really did help revive people from drowning, but the ancient Chinese texts that recommended fumigating a woman’s ladybits with incense in order to treat cases of demonic possession probably accomplished very little — other than to possibly cause a galloping yeast infection.
At least some treatments managed to miss the mark so thoroughly that they didn’t pose much danger. Sir Kenelm Digby, a seventeenth-century English courtier, had a recipe for an ointment to treat wounds; its ingredients were not something you wanted anywhere near an open cut, but fortunately it was meant to be applied instead to the blade that had injured you. Meanwhile, he advised wrapping the wound itself in clean linen.
Other methods weren’t about administering any kind of medical substance at all. I love massage for relaxation and the easement of pain, but when it comes to remedying serious internal conditions, there’s no evidence that it does much at all. The long-term benefits of this approach went in unexpected directions, though: when Victorian physicians invented mechanical massage devices to treat various ailments — including, but not limited to, “female hysteria” — they gave the world the precursor of the vibrator.
Electricity was, like gold, considered a “wonder drug” when we first learned how to generate it on a regular basis. Any problem could be solved by zapping it! Basically, whenever we discover something new, we have a tendency to assume it can fix everything. Just ask all the companies in the first half of the twentieth century that touted the miraculous benefits of consuming or bathing in irradiated water, brushing your teeth with radioactive toothpaste, and more!
Surgical treatments could get equally horrifying. I won’t go into depth on surgery until later, but if you want further proof that appalling medical practices aren’t just the domain of the distant past, check out the early twentieth-century fad for lobotomies as a cure for all kinds of psychiatric issues. Women in particular have been subjected to genital surgeries — frequently without consent — on the theory that having a uterus or a clitoris is the cause of many of our woes, and getting rid of them will make everything better.
Not all weird-sounding treatments of yore are harmful nonsense, though. Trepannation (cutting a hole in the skull) can legitimately help relieve dangerous intracranial pressure from swelling. Cobwebs really do help stanch bleeding; they contain vitamin K, which assists with clotting. Leeches, which I mentioned before, can help reduce swelling and restore circulation, for example when a severed body part is surgically reattached. And maggots, believe it or not, are very useful for cleaning out dead tissue from a wound or ulcer without harming the healthy tissue around it.
Looking to the future, we can probably expect the patterns of the past to hold. For all that we theoretically follow the scientific method now, human bodies are complicated enough, and the placebo effect is real enough, that figuring out whether something works or not isn’t a matter of a straightforward test. As a result, any new thing we discover is likely to have all kinds of benefits attributed to it for a while, before we amass enough data to know for sure. This will apply to exotic herbs and fruit (think of açaí’s reputation in the last few decades), to nanotechnology, to — unfortunately — alien organisms, should we encounter any.
Because fundamentally, we’re really really afraid of being sick, and especially of dying. Anything that offers a hope of cure, however bizarre it sounds . . . we want to give it a shot. If that thing is offered to us by someone who seems to have authority, like a doctor, then we’re even more inclined to trust its potential benefits. Even if we don’t understand how it works; maybe more so when we don’t understand how it works. I don’t see that changing any time soon, because new discoveries and new technologies will always give us new hope of a cure.