Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that can’t get away from ye-olde medical stories no matter how hard we try. It’s funny, but yeah… sorry all!
I’m your host this week, Aaron, and with me are:
I’m Jenn, and if you happened to watch Netflix’s Witcher series, I learned something new about it this week. The cursed, prickly-faced knight who turned out to be Ciri’s father is not a creation of the Witcher Universe. He’s actually based on a Brother’s Grimm story called The Hedgehog Boy.
I’m Shea, and this week I learned that if you pick up and put your ear up to a live crab you can hear what it sounds like to be attacked by a crab.
I’ve spent some time talking about woo-woo nonsense, laughing at the ridiculous claims modern woo’s make about the curative power of bleach in your butt, porous stones in your hoohaw, or ward off the evil autistic spirits of vaccination. But what about the time before modern medicine? What about when seemingly intelligent people were recommending bloodletting and porcupine fucking?.. Ok, I don’t know that the last one is real, but it’s easily the most erotic of acupuncture…
And so, I present the “Crazy Medical Nonsense of Yesteryear Quiz” – bonus points are available on each question if you correctly guess if the “treatment” is still recommended by nutjobs.
There are 14 questions that all draw from the same answer pool, pictured below. Pair the cure described with the ailment listed for a chance to win!
1. In 1530, the egotistical, loud-mouthed, Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus, proposed that patients should be dosed with mercury salts to make them urinate and drool. Some of Paracelsus’ contemporaries recommended dosing a patient with mercury until the patient drools three pints of saliva—a sufficient volume to get rid of what common 16th-century disease?
Paracelsus believed that syphilis was caused by invisible particles transmitted from one person to another—a good guess, given syphilis is caused by the microscopic bacteria Treponema pallidum—and that drooling copiously would flush the particles out of the patient. Even though mercury might kill syphilis bacteria in less-active infections, it might also kill the patient by causing ulcers, kidney failure, and brain damage.
Bonus: Nope, a quick google reveals that if it’s still used, the nutters are quiet about it. Most discussion of mercury in woo circles is about how it’s in vaccines and will give you autism.
2. Friar Agustín Dávila Padilla recorded in 1596 that an aging fellow cleric was ordered by doctors “to use a drink that in the Indies they call chocolate. It is a little bit of hot water in which they dissolve something like almonds that they call cacaos, and it is made with spices and sugar.” What were the doctors trying to cure with this delicious drink?
Dávila Padilla delicately relates that the cleric was suffering because “his urine was afflicted.”
Bonus: Despite “medical professionals” as far back as 1662 denying its efficacy chocolate is used to this day to treat things like: reducing cholesterol, raw coco for coughing, reduced natural insulin, lower blood pressure, antioxidants, preventing cancer, blood flow improvements, protecting skin from UV rays, preventing tooth decay, as a painkiller, and “good for your brain” … just about the only thing these woos and I can agree on is that chocolate can “improve moods”
3. The chocolate-loving friars wouldn’t have approved of their British contemporary John Gerard, a botanist who published The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes in 1597. In his herbal, Gerard recommends that juniper should be “boyled in Wine and drunke” to remedy what?
Or as it’s more commonly known, being preggers. Gerard was unusually blunt when recommending a juniper concoction to “bring downe the menses with force, draw away the after-birth, expel the dead childe, and kill the quicke”—that is, terminate a late-term pregnancy. Historians believe that Tudor women must have used abortifacients like juniper—which is known nowadays to cause miscarriages in cows—because illegitimacy rates were surprisingly low for an era without the pill.
Bonus: Oh yeah.
In addition to helping you pass drug tests apparently, juniper is still used for: relief from snoring, gout, arthritis, rheumatism, colic, chronchitis, heartburn, acne, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and various constitutional ailments, including: EBs (Elephant-butterfly), Eagles, Tigers, and Bears – oh my!, and as a Mind-body-emotional curative as prescribed in an excerpt from a 1898 book on nonsense.
The fourth edition of Dr. Willis’s 1675 book “Receipts for the Cure of All Distempers” the famous-even-after-death Willis recommends combining powdered peony roots, amber, and “a man’s Scull, prepar’d” to treat what?
Human bones, blood, and fat were such popular remedies in the 17th century that King Charles II regularly took “the King’s Drops”—a distillation of human skull. The rationale for treating strokes with skulls was the homeopathic idea that like cures like. Despite his drops, King Charles died of a stroke in 1685.
Bonus: isn’t used today, at least that I could find…
- Shortly after King Charles died, his successor King James II commanded Sir Gourdon in 1686 to share an elaborate curative recipe of “Agrimony Roots, Primrose Roots, Dragon Roots, Single Peony Roots, the Leaves of Box,” mixed with “the black of Crabs Claws prepared.” This mixture was to be mashed, boiled, and then drunk daily for three days before the new and full moons. Pourquoi?
Rabies… because why not.
Gourdon says should drink their crab claws and peony roots in milk. It was incurable until Louis Pasteur invented a vaccine in 1885.
Bonus: Again, not that I can find in this specific preparation, though elements are still commonly used.
- In 1718, the English apothecary John Quincy published his Compleat English Dispensatory, which includes a recipe for a syrup sweetened with honey, cloves, and ginger, mixed with morning glory and the “Roots of Hermodactyl”—the colchicum plant. What was Quincy trying to cure?
Because it was the 18th century in England and everyone was living high on the hog!
Quincy might’ve been on to something by including colchicum. The plant contains colchicine, which is prescribed nowadays to stop gout’s pain and inflammation caused by the buildup of uric acid, which can be caused by diet or genetics. Unfortunately, being wicked stupid, gout sufferers of the time often welcomed the pain: Quincy’s contemporaries believed that being a rich-man’s disease gout protected its sufferers from developing other diseases.
Bonus: Well… the colchicine is, kinda. This could go either way.
- In 1744, British doctor Thomas Aery prepared a tincture for a 26-year-old widow, made of a “few Drops of this blood-warm was to be used frequently.” By preparing this tincture, bleeding the unfortunate woman from her arm, and restricting her diet to water-gruel and fresh broth, what was Aery trying to treat?
Get stabbed in the eye with a fork.
Aery only reports that “she received a Wound in the Cornea of her right Eye, by the Spear of a common Fork.” Despite having her eye washed by Aery’s tincture, being bled regularly, having her scalp blistered, and eating a restricted diet, the young woman recovered enough after two months that she could see “the right Side of Objects a little darkened.”
Bonus: Bloodletting? Oh fuck yeah that still happens.
While it can be used to treat things like polycythemia or hemochromatosis (too much blood, and too much iron in the blood respectively) it’s obviously quackery of the highest order when we try to treat things like the common cold, genetic ailments, stress, and pretty much whatever else.
- In 1758, Patrick Brydone was pleased to write about one of his successes. Brydone reported that Robert Haigs, a 45-year-old laborer from Coldinghame, was cured after he “underwent the electrical shocks in the common way. After having received about thirty or forty very severe ones, he grew pale, and staggering for several steps, would have fallen over, had he not been supported.” What illness required Haigs to be “strongly electrified”?
Brydone cheerfully reports that, after shocking his patient until he couldn’t stand, poor electrified Haigs went “without any anguish symptom … for the space of four months.”
Bonus: Yep, electro-shock is still used as a treatment for things though it ranges wildly from “maybe that works” to full on cure-by-torture.
- In 1761, the New England surgeon Mr. Strong first took “fine sea salt, which was plentifully sprinkled and rubbed” onto the patient. Then, he plastered the man with a poultice of burdock-root and made him vomit by drinking a mixture of saffron, water, and white ash bark. Two days later, “the patient was perfectly cured,” which Strong attributed to the salt.
The colonist had been “bitten by a rattlesnake in the left foot, between the great toe and the next.” After slicing open the wound, Strong rubbed salt into it—literally. Which is why they all would have died if the local native americans hadn’t helped out…
Bonus: Yep. Epsom salts aside, salt rubs are still used as natural exfoliants, a terrible sunburn treatment, itch relief, gum disease, and somehow, dry skin.
- In 1828, surgeon Henry Perry starting first with bloodletting—“either by means of cupping or leeching”—and blistering, Perry next dosed the patient with the emetic antimony—“carried so far as to keep up a continued nausea, without producing actual vomiting.” Next, he dosed his patient with enough mercury to induce gentle drooling and finished the regiment by noting that “There can be no impropriety in giving our patient … an opiate at bedtime,” such as Batley’s Anodyne. What was the original complaint of Perry’s bloodied, blistered, nauseated, high patient?
Perry believed that this debilitating infection of the lungs was caused when an overwarm person suddenly became cold or wet, constricting blood vessels and driving blood into the lungs. Perry proposed that this “inflammation” could be relieved by bloodletting. Presumably, the patient’s complaining was relieved by Batley’s Anodyne.
Bonus: bloodletting we already covered, cupping was an olympic sport a few years back and I’m pretty sure opium is recession proof.
- After reading about some experiments on dogs, in 1832 Edinburgh, Scotland, doctor Thomas Latta took “warm water, holding in solution the requisite salts,” and slowly injected six pints in 30 minutes into “an aged female, on whom all the usual remedies had been fully tried.” While Latta lost this first patient, his second patient recovered within two days of a similar injection. This first recorded use of saline in humans was meant to cure what?
This terrible diarrheal disease broke out in Britain in 1831, where another Scottish doctor first noticed that the blood of cholera patients was missing salts and water volume. His experiments with saline injected into dogs were reported to the Lancet in 1831 and inspired Latta to try something similar with cholera patients.
Bonus: Yeah, saline is totally common now … of course, it’s a little different than stove-top salt water…
- In 1867, the British doctor William Domett Stone reported his treatment of F.G., a 26-year-old, single man. Stone “ordered the patient to take extra meat diet; to suck two eggs every morning,” and to take a syrup of iron and cod-liver oil twice daily. What were the extra meat, two eggs, and cod-liver syrup supposed to cure?
Paralytic insanity caused by masturbation.
Stone firmly believed that “excessive mental work with insufficient nourishment, and sexual excess, either separately or combined, will cause paralytic insanity.” Stone rather irritably reports that, when he asked F.G. if he masturbated, F.G. replied, “Who has not?”
Bonus: Oh sure. Meat is currently used as a treatment for Chronic Illness, digestive problems, and according to Beef Magazine it will cure diabetes, kidney failure, blindness, leg and foot amputations, and can act as a curative in lieu of most invasive surgical procedures. As one might expect, the citation section has a lot of Dr. Oz and Mirror.co.uk in it…
- British doctor William Robert Smith offered his suggestion for how to cure “a series of most distressing and chronic discomforts.” Smith reported that a “tablespoon of cold water at night, the cold bath and cold compresses to the abdomen in the morning, the taking of large quantities of fruit, the use of oatmeal porridge and of bran bread, the cigar after breakfast, the daily walk, have all their influence on bringing about the desired end.” What was cured by bran bread and post-breakfast cigars?
Smith’s recommendations for exercise and a high-fiber diet to achieve the “desired end” mirror the Mayo Clinic’s suggestions for treating chronic constipation.
Bonus: Yes… but only the fiber and exercise parts…
- In 1887, the British doctor Edward Dutton cured an 18-year-old woman through “massage, seclusion, and overfeeding” her with milk, eggs, buttered bread, and “beef-tea.” Nearly three months later, the woman could walk nearly six miles a day and “felt quite well.” What had the beef-tea, seclusion, and abdominal massage cured?
Why, hysteria of course!
A very severe case, with Dutton reporting that when he first saw her, “She was nothing but a bag of skin and bones” who weighed only 85 pounds. The young woman’s mother reported that several years previously Dutton’s patient had stopped eating breakfast, started spending her lunch money on “sweets and cake,” and then began vomiting regularly “in large quantities all day long”—symptoms reminiscent of what we know as bulimia. After several months of treatment, Dutton’s patient gained 25 pounds, and he happily reported that ”she was remaining quite strong and well.”
Bonus: Yep, “beef-tea” is still widely used as a curative for all manner of ailments but seems to focus on the common cold and generally maintaining health. It’s basically beef stock, though some yee-oldy recipes also call for onion, carrot, and lemongrass with noodles, making it essentially beef-chicken soup.
So there we have it. Yee-Oldie style cures for common illnesses… and made up ones. Who knew the curative power of crushed human skull!
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