11 Memories of Not-So-Modern Medicine

Image credit: 
Getty Images

Medicines and medical practices have come a long way in a relatively short time. Here are some items that have vanished from medicine cabinets in the last few decades.

1. Mercurochrome

Most folks under the age of 30 have never heard of this topical antiseptic. But many of us Boomers begged mom to daub our cuts and scrapes with the relatively painless Mercurochrome in lieu of that nasty stinging Iodine. Sure it stained your flesh pinkish-red, but you could probably wear that temporarily as a battle scar. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration put very strict limitations on the sale of Mercurochrome in 1998 and stated that it was no longer considered to be a GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) over-the-counter product. Many grandmothers scoffed, "Since when?! I used that stuff for years and none of my kids died!" But more scientific minds agreed that the ban was a wise and "about time!" decision, since the main active ingredient in Mercurochrome is mercury.

2. Iodine

Iodine burned like fire when applied to an open wound; this was mainly because the tincture sold for home use had an alcohol base. Many doctors today use a water-based iodine as an antiseptic, as it has one of the broadest germ-killing spectrums. The skull and crossbones on the label along with the word POISON in capital letters probably give a clue as to why this old school remedy is rarely found in home first aid kits anymore.

3. Mercury Thermometer


Before those convenient in-your-ear digital thermometers hit the market, we had to struggle to keep these heavy glass models under our tongues long enough for the mercury filling to register whether or not we were sick enough to stay home from school. My younger brother, Iron Jaws, bit through enough of these that Mom managed to collect a nice sized blob of mercury that she kept in a bottle for our amusement. Mercury thermometers are still available in the US (they've been banned throughout much of Europe and Asia), but the American Medical Association and the Environmental Protection Agency "strongly recommend" that alternative thermometers be used in the home.

4. Castor Oil

Once upon a time a bottle of vile-tasting castor oil was a staple in every medicine cabinet. For some reason, mothers in the 1920s and '30s used it as a cure-all for any sort of tummy ailment. In reality, the only condition castor oil is suitable to treat is constipation, and even in that case doctors tend to discourage its use, as the results are often unpredictable and can result in severe cramping and involuntary explosive bowel movements that last for hours.

5. TB Test


The skin test for tuberculosis was a common annual procedure for all elementary school children in the US during the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. The rate of infection decreased dramatically by the late 1970s, and universal TB testing gradually ceased. By the early 1990s, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended testing for at-risk children (immigrants from Mexico, the Philippines, Vietnam, India, and China; kids exposed to IV drug users or adults with HIV) only. The benefits of targeted testing are proven, but implementing a procedure is difficult to do without stigmatizing the affected children, so in some school districts the program is currently in political limbo.

6. Disclosure Tablets


It used to be that once a year the school nurse, usually accompanied by a representative from Colgate or Crest, presented everyone in class with a packet containing a free toothbrush, a tiny tube of toothpaste, and two small red pills. The pills were disclosure tablets, and their purpose was to indicate the disgusting areas of your mouth where plaque was collecting and you needed to step up your brushing routine lest you end up with dentures in high school. The dental kits are rarely given away as a matter of routine today; thanks to today's litigious society, you usually have to ask your dentist or pharmacist for the tablets. That way they can ask all the proper questions ahead of time to make sure you (or your child) aren't allergic to anything in them or whether they violate your dietary restrictions (guess there weren't that many vegan kids back in the 1960s).

7. Fluoride


How many of you gagged just looking at that photo? For kids whose families were unable to afford to go to a dentist, public schools often offered a free fluoride treatment once per year. And even though we saw our dentist regularly, my mom couldn't pass up a freebie and always signed us up for the torture procedure. The fluoride was thick and syrupy and tasted terrible no matter what fun new flavor (like "bubblegum") they attempted to disguise it with. Luckily fluoridated water, toothpastes, rinses, and the like have virtually eliminated the need for additional special fluoride treatments.

8. Eye Patch for Amblyopia


Years ago the most popular treatment for "lazy eye" was a pirate-style eye patch worn over the good eye. Thanks to new treatments like specialized lenses and eye drops, patching is used only in a small percentage of cases these days. And, when patching the amblyopic eye is deemed necessary, doctors have discovered that an adhesive patch worn for a few hours daily is far more effective than the Moshe Dayan model.

9. Nurse's Cap

Remember how the mere sight of the nurse entering the examining room in her starched white uniform with the cap perched atop her head was enough to make you break into a flop sweat as a kid? Forget about "white coat syndrome," that severe uniform made every woman look like Nurse Ratched and sent many a patient into panic mode. Nurses ditched the white dresses and pantyhose in the 1980s in favor of colorful and whimsical scrubs, which were both more practical and comfortable for the wearer and more relaxing for the patient. And while the cap was the iconic symbol of nursing (nursing students were presented their caps with great ceremony upon graduation), it was also extremely unhygienic; even with multiple bobby pins, the hat rarely stayed in place, forcing the wearer to constantly fuss with it, touching her hair and contaminating her hands. Today's nursing school graduates receive pins instead of caps.

10. Head Mirror

Old-time movie and TV doctors always wore their head mirrors over their foreheads, like a shiny bullseye. In practice, however, the mirror (which was invented in the mid-1800s) was worn over one eye so that the doctor could peep through the tiny hole in the middle. The rest of the disc reflected an overhead light (or even the sunlight) onto the area of the patient the doctor was examining. Positioning the mirror just so literally took hours of practice, and most doctors today use a battery-operated head light instead. Some otorhinolaryngologists still prefer the mirror, though, believing that it provides the best light for indirect laryngeal examination.

11. Iron Lung


Dr. Philip Drinker of the Harvard School of Public Health developed the first "thoracic cage" that used vacuum cleaner blowers to alternate between atmospheric and sub-atmospheric pressure to force a patient to breathe. The machine, known as a Drinker Respirator, was originally intended as a pediatric-ward device to assist premature babies born with under-developed lungs. But when the dreaded disease known as polio began to spread in the United States, doctors found a second use for the device. Polio frequently paralyzed patients' diaphragms, rendering them unable to breathe on their own. The Warren Collins Corporation fine-tuned Drinker's design and mass-produced a similar device at a more affordable price; it was dubbed the Iron Lung. In the early 1950s, most hospitals had wards filled with iron lungs, and many homes had a polio patient encased in one as well. Today's patients who are unable to breathe on their own are intubated with positive pressure ventilators, as opposed to the negative pressure utilized by the iron lung of yesteryear.
***
What home remedies do you remember grandma or mom using on you when you were a kid? What medical device that scared you to death has been replaced by a kinder, gentler gadget? Share both your horror stories and warm fuzzies!

More from mental_floss...

July 11, 2012 - 3:11am
submit to reddit