LOOKING BACK: Terrifying health treatments of the past

Bayer heroin

There is a new measles epidemic in various parts of the country due to so many people opting out of vaccinating their children.

Some people have come to believe that vaccination — the treatment for various childhood diseases — is terrible and is the cause of a more serious epidemic, autism.

Whether you are on one side of the issue with vaccines or the other, it causes me to look back in history to the enormous amount of terrible, strange and sometimes terrifying treatments that were used to cure ailments.

Turn-of-the-century treatments were quite imaginative in curing an ailment. The treatment for whooping cough was indeed terrible, considering what we know today about Lyme disease. The remedy called for taking three live ticks out of a sheep’s wool. The caregiver was to give these to the child for supper. It was said that the best way to do this was to serve a dish of cherry or raspberry sauce, inserting the live ticks in three of the pieces of fruit.

Squeamish yet? Luckily there was another treatment for this childhood ailment. The father of the family was to place the head of the sick child into a hole in a meadow for a few minutes at dusk. No other family member was to be present.

There were various remedies for babies with teething problems. A mole’s foot was hung around a baby’s neck. Leeches were applied behind the baby’s ears and lastly the baby’s gums were cut with a lancet to allow the teeth to come through easily.

For a simple cold it was thought that if you combined goose grease and turpentine and rubbed the mixture on the patient’s chest that might do the trick.

Tuberculosis had many treatments through the years — one was to smoke dried cow dung, inhaling the fumes through a pipe. But that actually sounds like a great treatment compared to Plombage. This was a 20th century treatment for tuberculosis where a surgeon would create a cavity in a patient’s lower lung and fill it with lucite balls. This procedure would make the infected lung collapse. It was thought that a collapsed lung would heal itself.

Epilepsy, headaches and abscesses were illnesses that called for a treatment named trepanation, which is humanity’s oldest surgery. Trepanation is the practice of boring holes in the skull to cure any illness.

Many illnesses were thought for years to be caused by simply having “bad blood,” so bloodletting became the treatment from as early as Roman times. Physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen were convinced that the human body was filled with four basic substances — yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood — and that these four “humors” were to be kept in balance. If a patient had a fever, the doctor would simply cut open a vein and let out some blood.

Later, leeches were used for bloodletting, which actually worked but not because of the leech feeding on the patient’s blood, but because of the curative substances in the leech’s saliva. Medicinal leech therapy (MLT) or hirudotherapy has been put back into modern medical treatment in the last 30 years.

Sometimes the treatment worked to cure one disease, but killed you in the end, like mercury. Second-century Chinese alchemists used liquid mercury to increase lifespan, even though it killed many of those who used it. Mercury was still being used in the 20th century; it was a popular treatment for sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis. Too bad that most patients died from liver and kidney damage caused by mercury poisoning.

In the early 20th century if a patient had a bad case of head lice he or she would be told to douse their heads in gasoline or kerosene. The treatment was actually somewhat effective, but extremely dangerous since candles, fireplaces and wood-burning stoves were everywhere.

We are in the midst of an opioid crisis in this country now, but it’s not the first time. Beginning in the 1660s doctors began prescribing drops of laudanum to patients complaining of everything from migraines to coughing, as well as to teething babies. Laudanum contained almost all of the opium alkaloids, including morphine and codeine, and was sold without a prescription up until the early 20th century. In 1898, heroin was introduced as a non-addictive treatment and was sold in pharmacies — also without a prescription.

The plight of the “Radium Girls” brought about the downfall of using radium as a treatment for many illnesses. The Radium Girls were female factory workers at the United States Radium factory in Orange, N.J. who in 1917 contracted radiation poisoning from pointing up their paint brushes with their mouths as they painted watch dials with radium-enhanced, self-luminous paint. But before that historic court case, radium water (water kept in radium-laced buckets and then bottled as a beverage) was celebrated for its health benefits and thought to cure everything from arthritis to impotence.

There is no cure for the smallpox virus but as a result of worldwide, repeated vaccination programs, the variola virus (smallpox) has been completely eradicated. The last known case was in Somalia in 1977. As a matter of fact, it is with smallpox that we find the beginning of vaccines in what was called variolation. Named after the virus that causes smallpox, the variola virus, variolation is the process by which material from smallpox sores was given to people who had never had smallpox. This was done by scratching the material into the arm or inhaling it. After variolation, a person usually went on to develop the symptoms associated with smallpox, but fewer people died.

Evans is the executive director of the Museum of Wayne County History.

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