A History of Gruesome Medical Cures

An amputation saw and knife
An amputation saw and knife | Source
Trepanation of the skull to relieve pressure and/or fluid.
Trepanation of the skull to relieve pressure and/or fluid. | Source

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.

Human skulls and other bones were used in old medicine recipes.
Human skulls and other bones were used in old medicine recipes. | Source
There were many treatments for gout in the past.
There were many treatments for gout in the past. | Source

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?


A 'mummy'.  It was quite common to use bits and pieces from these preserved corpses in old medicine remedies.
A 'mummy'. It was quite common to use bits and pieces from these preserved corpses in old medicine remedies. | Source
Elizabeth I of England used all manner of weird medicines to relieve her many ailments.
Elizabeth I of England used all manner of weird medicines to relieve her many ailments. | Source

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.

An old operating theatre where you not only went through an horrific ordeal, but you were also observed by an audience!
An old operating theatre where you not only went through a horrific ordeal, but you were also observed by an audience! | Source
The old tools of the trade - these are tonsil guillotines for of course, removing infected tonsils.
The old tools of the trade - these are tonsil guillotines for of course, removing infected tonsils. | Source

Old surgical procedures

Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit - Life!
~Emily Dickinson


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.

Haemorrhoids

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.

Cataracts

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.

Amputation

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.

A barber-surgeon's bag and surgical instruments from the 19th century.
A barber-surgeon's bag and surgical instruments from the 19th century. | Source

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

Conclusion

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.
~Robert Owen

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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Comments 29 comments

kittythedreamer profile image

kittythedreamer 5 years ago from the Ether

Seeker7! Wow! Brilliant, gruesome, and unique. Voted up, awesome, and interesting. Really spiked my interest when I saw this hub pop up in my feed. You never cease to amaze me!


Diane Lockridge profile image

Diane Lockridge 5 years ago from Atlanta, GA

THIS. HUB. WAS. AWESOME! I totally think you should break it up into more hubs though, but I loved it! All-around high marks from me. Way to go!


J.S.Matthew profile image

J.S.Matthew 5 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

Extremely interesting and very well organized! I am into this kind of stuff. I appreciate you posting this and I will vote up and all that other good stuff! Nice job!

JSMatthew~


attemptedhumour profile image

attemptedhumour 5 years ago from Australia

Well i'm glad we've gone past the guinea pig stage. Some pretty gruesome remedies there. I watched a doco about Henry The Eighth. He used to spend three million pounds per year on all sorts of exotic food and had a mini palace built just for the newly discovered art of sugary ices. His servants life expectancy was much better, because of their plain diet. I had key hole surgery on my right knee in Jan and am back playing soccer. A medical miracle at 59. It was interesting that some of the zany ideas actually worked, like leeches and maggots. Crushed emeralds would have been a bit pricey though. Interesting stuff. Cheers


B. A. Williams profile image

B. A. Williams 5 years ago from USA

Glad its 2011 because even the mention of spiders and live lice makes me pale. Enjoyed your write up immensely.


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

You've done some great research and written a super fine article here Seeker7. Well done. A very many of these were unknown to me despite reading a good bit on similar topics and the historical personalities. Very interesting stuff. Anyone for some King's drops!


cheerfulnuts profile image

cheerfulnuts 5 years ago from Manila, Philippines

This is another great hub from you Seeker7! The potions are disgusting, but it didn't bother me that much because we see those stuff in movies involving witches and wizards. But the trepanation and the amputation...they make me shudder. I had to stop reading for awhile because I was eating something LOL. Voted up!=D


Deborah-Diane profile image

Deborah-Diane 5 years ago from Orange County, California

Yuck! Those sound like awful remedies. The illnesses couldn't have been as bad. Great hub, though!


KateWest profile image

KateWest 5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Awesome - saw a lot of the same visiting the UK last summer: http://www.museum.rcsed.ac.uk/content/content.aspx (I am sure you have been!)


daisynicolas profile image

daisynicolas 5 years ago from Alaska

Trips to memory lane should help humans understand how progressive we have become in certain aspects.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

1. Hi Kitty, it's always great to hear from you so many thanks for the lovely comment - hope I didn't make you feel too sick??LOL. I have to say I made sure my dinner was well digested before writing or researching this hub!

2. Hello Diane, many thanks for your kind comment and also the suggestion about a few smaller hubs - makes a lot of sense, many thanks.

3. Hello J.S. great to hear from you and glad that you liked the hub, many thanks too for the vote up! Much appreciated.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi attemptedhumour, Many thanks for stopping by.

That is fascianting about Henry VIII. I knew that all the Tudors had a very sweet tooth -Elizabeth in particular - but I didn't realise it was on such a grand scale!! I'm sure leeches and maggots do a grand job, but I still hope I never have to use them. It's great to be modern in relation to medicine - especially as you say re: keyhole surgery. Operations on the knee are still delicate affairs but a number of years ago when I first trained, people could be off their feet for weeks with even a straight forward cartiledge removal - great how times have changed.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

1. Hi B.A. - many thanks for stopping by and for your kind comment. I have to admit, that I stopped a few times when researching this as I felt very queasy - I'm glad we live in modern times because no way could I have taken any of their 'cures' that they had in the past.

2. Hi Alastar, always a pleasure to hear from you and to read your comments - for now, I'll pass on the king's drops thank you. LOL!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Cheerfulnuts - great to hear from you - I'll need to pay your hubs another visit soon, I always enjoy your articles. Anyway, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub - at least when you were not in the process of eating!LOL. I have to admit that I was the same - I felt quite nauseated at times!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

1. Hi Deborah-Diane, many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the read!LOL I agree with you I would have put up with the illness and the pain rather than go through some of the 'cures'.

2. Hi KateWest - many thanks for stopping by and glad that you enjoyed the hub. Many thanks for the link, will have a look - thanks.

3. Hi Daisynicolas - I agree with you. The next time I even think about complaining about a medicine or treatment I will remind myself about this hub and be greatful that I live in modern times. Many thanks for stopping by.

3.


Movie Master profile image

Movie Master 5 years ago from United Kingdom

What a great read, so different, so gruesome!!

I don't think I have ever been so grateful for the medicines I have in my medicine cupboard today:-)

The thought of the hangmans rope to cure a headache just has me reaching for my asprin!

Fabulous hub, thank you and voting up.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Moviemaster - as usual it is lovely to hear from you. Glad that you like the 'gruesome' read! LOL! I had to stop a few times as the research was putting me off my coffee and Mars Bar! Yeah, I think the Hangman's rope is pretty revolting! but I suppose in times when an execution was a day out for the family - they even had fairs and markets going as well to meet the crowds needs while the waited for the hangman - perhaps putting a used rope next to their head didn't make them squeamish? Many thanks for the vote up - really appreciated.


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 5 years ago from Sunny Florida

I love, love, loved this hub. The cures were so fascinating and delightfully gruesome. It's a wonder anyone survived the cure. Up and interesting.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi KoffeeKlatch,

I'm glad that you enjoyed the hub so much and thanks for the vote up. I have to admit that I made the mistake of eating a snack while researching one night - those chocolate raisins have never quite tasted the same since.


sublimegurl439 profile image

sublimegurl439 5 years ago from Granite Bay, CA

Wow!!! What aan amazing hub! I'm so glad I live in these times at least for medical reasons.. haha.. I loved it! Great pictures! Voted up


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi sublimegurl439.

Many thanks for stopping by and thanks for the great comment. I think - for medical reasons - we all prefer to live today.


JEDIJESSICUH profile image

JEDIJESSICUH 5 years ago from Kansas

This was a particularly gruesome hub to read, but I just couldn't stop myself. I've always viewed the earlier times as something of a dream come true. It seemed so much simpler back then. But I could never have survived their medical treatments. They make me cringe just thinking about them. Even the poultices, which seem like the least disturbing remedy for anything on here, are shudder inducing.

Overall, very nice hub. Voted useful, interesting and up. Your knowledge is this subject is impeccable.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi JediJessicuh,

Many thanks for stopping by. I agree with you. We tend to have a rose-tinted vision of the past, especially when we think of our polluted planet, overcrowding and endless noise that we have today. But taking the rose tints off, the past was a harsh - and painful - way to live and to get treatment.

There are a few in the hub that make me cringe as well, but I think the 'dentist' and the amputation must be the worst.


Slightly Bonkers profile image

Slightly Bonkers 5 years ago from Ireland

Hi There, its a great hub! I really enjoyed reading it... in some gruesome way :) Aren't we happy that medicine has evolved, however what will they think years go by on how we do things today....?


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Slightly Bonker,

Glad that you enjoyed the hub!

Do you know when I was writing this hub that same thought crossed my mind about how people in the future would view our methods today? And yes I think our ways might well seem as barbaric to them as we view the methods from the past!


plinka profile image

plinka 5 years ago from Budapest, Hungary

This is quite thorough job. You must have worked a lot on it. It's very interesting, but a little bit scary. :-) Using human fat as ointment among others. Huhh. Superstitions and the lack of real knowledge make people barbarian. It's interesting that some cruel methods described were rather natural.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Plinka,

Lovely to hear from you and many thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

I agree that many of the so-called 'cures' are scary and revolting! Where some of these ideas came from in the first place will remain a mystery I think. Thankfully we have moved on a great deal from those far off days. Everytime I want to moan about my health service I think about what people had to go through in the past and I'm greatful that I am living in this time and not sooner.

Many thanks again for your visit and glad that you found the hub interesting if a little scary!


Virtual Treasures profile image

Virtual Treasures 4 years ago from Michigan

Haha! I'm not sure whether to feel physically sick or eternally thankful!! I guess a combination of both! Isn't this all so amazing? You do such a wonderful job presenting all of your information, as well. I'm a huge history buff and antique collector and I absolutely LOVE, LOVE, LOVE when I come across quack medicine items! This hub is fantastic!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 4 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

LOL!! I know what you mean. I was engrossed with the horror of medical 'treatment' and at the same time I vowed never to moan about my GP or the NHS again!

How interesting that you collect antiques? I do love old things but I wouldn't honestly know a fake from the genuine article! I could literally spend hours just browsing through antique shops and museums just looking at the items from the past. These tend to bring history more alive that other ways can't.

Many thanks again for stopping by and for the lovely comment!

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