A History of Gruesome Medical Cures
The desire to take medicine is perhaps the greatest feature which distinguishes man from animals.
Sir William Osler
This is a short history of just a few of the hideous, weird, puzzling and often disgusting 'cures' used to treat various conditions. Everyone from the poorest serf to royalty were on the receiving end of, what were, thriving 'medical' businesses. So let's now commence our journey into the incredible world of gruesome medical cures.
The Weird and the Wonderful
It is a wise man's part, rather to avoid sickness, than to wish for medicines . ~Sir Thomas More, Utopia
Herbs and flowers were certainly used in many medieval medicines. This seems palatable enough. However, other preparations were not so wholesome. For example, many contained animal parts, waste products, body fluids and other peculiar substances. If some seem to be similar to a revolting magician's brew, it has to be remembered, that many of these 'cocktails' were based not just on their believed medicinal value but on superstition.
Here are a few of these weird recommendations:
- Rheumatism - for any pain suffered through rheumatics the patient had to wear the skin of a donkey.
- Gout - this extremely painful, crippling condition, was treated by using the following poultice/mixture for the affected areas - pigs marrow, boiled herb, red-hair from a dog and many worms. If this didn't work you could try a paste made up of rosemary or other herbs, honey and a large dollop of goat's droppings.
- Deafness - the following disgusting paste was placed inside the ear and was said to cure deafness. It was prepared with gall from a hare and grease from a fox.
- Jaundice - if you didn't have jaundice before taking the following potion, you would probably end up feeling so after one mouthful. Here is the procedure - for seven days you must drink some ale each morning that contains nine live lice. The recipe doesn't clarify whether the lice should be from the head, body or lower regions!
- Thinning hair/baldness - if a crushed garlic bulb rubbed into the skull did not work then you should slap on a few handfuls of grease from a fox. But you had to first ensure that you shaved all the hair off the scalp. It was also essential that your scalp was clean before applying any of the 'cures'. Cleanliness was ensured by rubbing the scalp with the juices from crushed beetles.
- Internal bleeding - no matter what the cause the cure to this potentially lethal condition was to wear a bag around your throat that contained a dried out toad. I can't figure out this one either!
- Skin diseases and rashes were thought to be relieved by placing a piece of wolf skin on the area.
- Kidney stones were simply cured by placing a hot poultice of honey and pigeon dung on the area.
- For heart disease there was a particularly disgusting medicine that would be given to the patient. Herbs were the first ingredients - parsley and sage being the most common. The herbs would be added to a concoction of ground down animal skull and juices from a boiled toad. To finish off the cuisine, dead insects would be added.
- Asthma is a terrible and distressing illness for anyone today. But spare a thought for the treatment offered to sufferers in days gone by. The following preparation should be covered in butter to allow them to slide down the throat more easily - either young frogs or live spiders. Despite the fact that either of these animals would hit your stomach and not the lungs would suggest that this cure probably did not work. If on the off chance you happened to vomit up your medicine there was another tried and tested remedy. This was a brew made up from crushed human skull, crushed pig's bone marrow both mixed in with sweat. How the 'sweat' was collected and what amount should be used is not documented. But if anyone has any suggestions please let me know?
Human Body Parts For Royal Potions
When we think of kings and queens from the past our images tend to be of glorious costumes and beautiful jewels adorning regal personages. This wonderful dream might well be shattered when we look at some of the items they swallowed, rubbed on or stuffed into their imperial bodies. The following descriptions are just some of the shocking and repulsive ingredients used to cure kings and queens of old. These are not made up from some fantasy book of spells, but are documented historical facts.
- Painful Joints - it was not unusual for the dead bodies of murderers or those killed by trauma to be used for medicinal concoctions. One popular remedy was using human fat as an ointment that was rubbed over the joints in order to relieve the pain from rheumatism or arthritic conditions. Not only that, but both royal men and women used human fat to soften and ward off wrinkles. Elizabeth I of England is also known to have used 'man's fat ' to fill in the pot marks she was left with when she recovered from smallpox.
- Egyptian Mummies - the use of mummified human body parts was widespread in Elizabethan times. John Banister was Elizabeth I's personal physician and advocated this form of treatment for a number of conditions such as ulcers, cuts, wounds and haemorrhage. The thought behind their use was that because mummies were so well-preserved they must contain some form of magical life source within them. The damage done by Elizabethan tomb raiders was immense. Nothing much would have been left of the corpses after various bits were ground down into fine powders. They would then be further mixed into liquids for potions or pastes for use with surgical dressings.
- Because Elizabeth had such rotten teeth they must have caused her a great deal of pain, not to mention general ill-health. She may well have been advised to hold the tooth of a corpse next to her rotten teeth and bleeding gums in order to effect some kind of relief. Elizabeth would also have had dental cavities. The teeth needing filled would be packed using the brain of a partridge. Where the ideas or the thought behinds these revolting treatments came from is unknown for the present. Although the partridge brain may have been taken from some of the folklore and legend that surrounds various species of bird.
- When King Charles I was executed the scenes immediately after his death were ghoulish. The mob rushed forward to dip pieces of cloth and handkerchiefs into his blood. The reason was that Royal blood was thought to cure common ailments - in particular the skin disease scrofula.
- In the time of Charles II a popular remedy for many common ailments was powdered human skulls that were then distilled into liquid form. They were known as Goddard's Drops after the famous chemist Jonathan Goddard. Charles II also used this particular potion as a hangover cure and it eventually became known as the King's Drops.
- For epilepsy there were numerous weird brews that a person could take - if the King's Drops didn't work. These included 'the dung of an infant pulverised' - rest assured it is the dung that is pulverised not the infant. Testicles of a bear, maggots or earthworms. There are no clues to follow to identify the source of why these 'cures' were thought to be worth taking.
Old surgical procedures
Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit - Life!
There were no qualified surgeons as we know them today. In many cases people went to a specified person or trade, because they were known to be handy with a knife or other tools.
Quite a few operations were handled by the local barber - this is where the traditional red and white pole sign originated from. The red is alleged to signify blood and white for bandages or dressings. Only the wealthier people could hire his services and many would for example go in for a haircut, shave and to have a tooth pulled at the same time. Poorer people would more than likely have had to rely on other local trades such as blacksmiths, butchers or farmers etc. People within these occupations are believed to have carried out operations such as cataract removal from the eye and tooth extractions.
Trepanning - for evil spirits in the head
Basically trepanning is the technique of cutting a hole into the skull when the patient was awake and without anaesthetic.
In Medieval times, the procedure was performed when it was believed that evil spirits/demons were lurking and trapped within the victim's brain. Trepanning sometimes went as far as removing a section of brain thought to be infected. Of course what we think of as evil spirits is different to the perception in olden times. Many forms of illness were thought to be caused by supernatural forces. Trepanning was thought to be used for conditions such as - epilepsy, insanity and fractured skulls.
For people in the past developing haemorrhoids must have been something to try to avoid at all costs or put up with the pain. It is known that some medieval physicians used cautery irons to treat them - in other words they were burned off. It is also documented that pulling them out with their fingernails was the best solution. The 'fingernail treatment' was a method favoured by the Greek physician Hippocrates. This was remember without the use of pain relief and they did not have tubes of ointment such as 'Preparation H'.
Bladder Stones & Blockage
There are many reasons why people can suffer from urine retention and kidney and bladder stones. But one of the main causes in the past was due to sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis.
It was common knowledge what could result from syphilis, so it is a wonder that so many continued to dice with danger. If obstruction did occur there was a particularly gruesome method, that although often worked, was certainly more painful than the retention of urine experienced. The cure involved a metal urinary catheter (tube) being inserted into the urethra and into the bladder. Today when a catheter is inserted in hospital a local anaesthetic is always used and modern catheters are pliable and soft. You can imagine the pain that must have been experienced by the insertion of a metal catheter. This particular procedure was thought to have been first used in the 14th century.
A number of trades were believed to have carried out the delicate process of cataract removal. Sources from the time describe the use of sharp instruments - a knife or large needle - being pushed through the cornea of the eye in order to remove the film. It was not until Islamic medicine became more widely known in medieval Europe that a more gentle form of removal was used that involved suction.
Probably the most feared procedure of all was amputation. Not only because of the pain but the survival percentage was very poor. Death was certainly caused, some of the time, by blood loss. More frequently however, it was thought to be post-operative infection that caused the highest mortality rate. This was at a time when bacteria had never been heard of and as a consequence hand washing and sterilisation of surgical instruments was not carried out.
Amputation 'surgeons' were never sought after for their delicacy but for their speed. Two instruments were mainly used. First a curved knife would cut away the flesh from around the bone. When the bone was reached then a saw had to be used. To stop the bleeding either hot irons or boiling oil was placed on the end of the stump.
Many of these surgeons did not bother with pain relief for the patient. It was a widespread belief that experiencing pain was essential for proper healing to occur. If it was prescribed it usually took the form of poisonous plants such as mandrake. In addition, the use of opium and/or alcohol was common. But many of these toxic brews, when taken in combination, not only sedated the patient and killed pain, but often lead to coma and death.
Needless to say that many of the patients who underwent amputation - the most common were soldiers from battle - were scarred psychologically for life. Not only from coping with disfigurement and disability but due to the mental trauma of the ordeal.
What Would You Have Feared Most?
If you were living in the past what procedure would you have feared the most?See results without voting
Question About Modern Medications
Do we rely on modern medicines too much for trivial complaints?See results without voting
God and the Doctor we alike adore
But only when in danger, not before;
The danger o'er, both are alike requited,
God is forgotten, and the Doctor slighted.
This has been a gruesome journey into the world of medicinal cures from the past. But having said this, there is evidence - usually found by archaeologists - suggesting historical medicine actually did not too badly with some areas of treatment - especially in relation to herbal therapies, many of which are still used or making a comeback today.
In later times physicians began to study at universities on the European mainland and brought their skills back to Britain. Much of what they learned was from text written by Arabic doctors. Monks and nuns as well had a wide experience of dealing with all manner of complaints and did have an impressive success rate for the times. However, because the monastic remedies were herbal based, the church began to frown on their use. The belief was that monks and nuns might be dabbling in witchery, so were banned from practising. As a result many of their skills and knowledge built up over centuries was lost.
Thankfully due to continued research and learning medicine continued to improve over the centuries and today our doctors and surgeons are of course highly educated and skilled men and women. This I think is something we do need to be thankful for in our modern age.
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