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10 Flawed medical treatments from history

Do you consider yourself lucky to be Healthy Living in the 21st century? You should, when you think about some of the medical practices from the past.

1) Thalidomide
The Thalidomide tragedy was the drug scandal that has made medical professionals wary of “wonder drugs” ever since. Touted as a miracle cure for morning sickness in the late 50s, it had disastrous consequences in the form of birth defects. The babies who survived a thalidomide-laced pregnancy were often missing limbs or had other defects. It would lead to much tighter regulation of drugs in pregnancy.

2) Heroin
Another drug not generally associated with good health, heroin was available on prescription between 1898 and 1920. It was used to treat insomnia and pain and doubtless it was effective on both counts, but it also slowed the heart and caused patients to become heroin addicts. Not the path to long-term health.

3) Cocaine
Like heroin, cocaine was legal until the 1920s and was used as an anaethestic. It certainly can have numbing effects but it’s another highly addictive drug, which eventually led to its prohibition. But, not before it found alternative uses as a stimulant for workers (handed out by factory managers) and an ingredient in Coca-cola!

4) Blood-letting
In the Middle Ages, the common belief was that illnesses needed to be let out of the Healthy Body – physicians believed they were caused by excess fluid, which just needed to be drained by means of opening the veins. Needless to say, it often went wrong and more patients were killed from the blood loss than were saved.

5) Leeches
Related to the blood-letting was the practice of leeching. It was the same basic principle but instead of cutting the vein open, doctors would simply attach a leech to suck the blood out. As painful as it sounds.

6) Cigarettes
“For your throat’s sake, smoke” is probably not a phrase you would see in a modern doctor’s office, but in the early 20th century it was one of many slogans that promoted smoking as healthy. The sponsor was a tobacco brand called Craven-A (an ad in the Montreal Gazette in 1938 claimed “My throat is safe with Craven-A”) but doctors were keen to endorse smoking too, with cigarettes being handed out at medical conferences. The discovery of the causes of lung cancer was one of the sharpest U-turns in 20th century medicine, although by 1960 still only a third of American doctors believed that it was due to smoking. A remarkable PR exercise by the tobacco industry.

7) Morphine
And onto the world of child medicine next, with the morphine-infused “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup”. A popular tonic of the 19th century, it promised to soothe teething pains and other childhood illnesses but also produced a generation of tiny opiate addicts. Another product that should have been tested a bit more before being released onto the market.

8) Brandy
A much more recent teething remedy now, with the parents favourite of the 70s. Child’s crying? Try rubbing brandy on its gums! It worked beautifully in easing the pain but it also gave them a taste for alcohol. Unsurprisingly it’s now fallen out of parenting fashion.

9) Mercury
Today, the effects of mercury poisoning are well known – brain damage and even death – but in the 19th century, it was a popular cure for TB, syphilis and even “melancholy”. It is still used in vaccines today but in minute quantities that are unlikely to cause any damage.

10) Dwale
And lastly that magnificently-named cure from the Middle Ages – dwale. Consisting of vinegar, boar gall, hemlock and other charming substances it was an effective anaesthetic but unfortunately, patients sometimes failed to wake up again. Once more, aren’t you grateful for modern medicine?



Until next time,

Peace, love and vitamin C!


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