8 Cures That Did More Harm Than Good

iStock.com/powerofforever
iStock.com/powerofforever

No one likes to be sick or suffering. But in the course of trying to find new cures for medical problems, or perceived medical problems, we’ve stumbled more than a few times. Most of the time, treatments simply didn't work and were no more harmful than what they were meant to “cure.” Sometimes, though, the medicine was even worse than the condition itself.

1. RAW MEAT AND HOG FAT FOR A RABIES BITE

To his credit, Pliny the Elder discounted many purely magical folk cures in his Natural Histories (not to mention writing entire chapters against the eating of infant brains). He was also a proponent of several treatments which we now know to have some merit, such as aloe vera to dress burns.

Still, his advice was often more questionable than credible. His cures for bites from a mad (rabid) human or dog were the same—raw veal or she-goat dung placed over the wound for no less than four days, while the patient takes only lime and hog’s fat internally. If this doesn’t sound so bad, imagine eating nothing but antacids and lard, while having an open wound get more and more infected. If you weren’t dead by the time the rabies actually manifested, you probably wished you were.

2. SMACKING A BIBLE ON A GANGLION CYST

Hit them with a book. A heavy book. The use of Bibles to cure ganglion cysts provided the colloquial terms for this benign lump on the hand or wrist: Bible cysts, Gideon’s disease, or Bible bumps.

Really, you shouldn’t do this, however. While in some circumstances the lump may disappear or be reabsorbed after being thwacked, this method of treatment is second only to puncturing them in an unsterile environment when it comes to causing recurrence and complications. Most ganglion cysts cause no complications on their own, and many will disappear after a few months if left alone [PDF].

3. WHIPPING FOR "DRAPETOMANIA" OR "DYSAETHESIA AETHIOPICA"

Drapetomania and dysaethesia aethiopica were two different but related “conditions” that one Samuel Cartwright saw as prevalent among slaves during the mid-19th century. Drapetomania supposedly caused an “insanity” that drove slaves to run away, while dysaethesia aethiopica caused “partial numbness of the skin,” and “great hebetude” (mental dullness and lethargy).

To cure either condition, you needed only to whip the patient. The concept caught on in the South, as it lent an air of science and self-justification to slave owners—Cartwright’s work suggested that the only moral thing to do was to keep slaves in their place for their own good, lest they become afflicted with one of these conditions (he noted how “common” dysaethesia aethiopica was among “Free Negros”). Of course, this quackery was not hard to spot by his contemporaries outside of the South. Frederick Douglass once sarcastically remarked that, since white indentured servants run away, too, “drapetomania” was probably a European condition that had been introduced to Africans by white slave traders.

4. SMOKING FOR ASTHMA

Smoke a cigarette! Not a tobacco cigarette (though those were advertised as “healthy” for decades), but an herbal remedy. While a few components of these cigarettes may have caused a degree of temporary relief for those with bronchitis or asthma, the long-term effects of smoking anything are known to be detrimental, especially to those whose lungs are already diseased. 

Long-term effects aside, many of the “asthma cigarettes” contained ingredients that were immediately and seriously harmful. Several brands boasted adding arsenic to their papers. Two of the staple ingredients for many companies were stramonium, an extract from the deadly Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) plant, and belladonna, extracted from deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna).

5. HEROIN TO CURE A MORPHINE HABIT

“Morphinism,” or morphine addiction, was perceived to be such a pervasive habit, and seen as such a scourge in polite society, that quack cures and treatments were easy to convince people to try, and rarely got reported or noticed when they didn’t work.

While unlabeled patent medicines in the U.S. were forced to reveal their ingredients after the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, many dangerous concoctions were still sold and advertised falsely. The tale of Bayer’s Heroin being used to “cure” morphine addiction (with a much more addictive and refined opiate) is pretty well-known, but it never caught on as much as Habitina (also known as Morphina-Cura) did. Habitina became known for its paid testimonials and dodgy advertising claims (“Non-Addictive! Cures the morphine habit!”), and was one of the most significant examples of the shortcomings of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Habitina not only didn't give the patient a cure, it combined the worst sides of the pharmaceutical industry into one bottle—its main ingredients were morphine sulfate (does it count as a cure if you call the same drug by a different name?), heroin, and caffeine.

6. RADIUM TO PREVENT INSANITY AND OLD AGE

“The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off” has to be one of the best Wall Street Journal headlines of all time. The “radium water” in question was called Radithor, and the jaw in question belonged to one Eben Byers: industrialist, socialite, and amateur golf champion.

Radium and radiation were all the rage around the turn of the 20th century. People who went to natural hot springs seemed “invigorated and renewed,” and scientists noted that many of these natural springs were high in naturally-occurring radon. The radon seemed to be to water what oxygen was to air; without it, water was “dead.” Looking to profit off of this discovery, companies first bottled water directly from the springs, and later produced “invigorating” crocks (containing internal radon discs or coatings) to irradiate water. Just fill the crock before you go to sleep, and have healthy, stimulating water all day long!

Unfortunately for those who consumed the radon, the radiation in the water did the opposite of what it was supposed to do. Eben Byers bought into the claims, and drank three bottles of Radithor a day, beginning in 1930. In 1932, his teeth began to fall out, holes began to appear in his jaw, and he became generally unwell. He was dying of aggressive cancer brought on by the radon (not radiation poisoning, as is commonly believed, but still directly attributable to the Radithor). He died at age 51 and was buried in a lead-lined coffin. His was one of the cases used to substantially increase the FDA’s ability to regulate medical claims, when the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act passed.

7. GOAT GLANDS TO CURE IMPOTENCE

Some people will do anything to get their “potency” back, and there are plenty of people out there who are willing to take advantage of that. John R. Brinkley was one of the myriad snake-oil salesmen at the turn of the century, but a medical degree bought from a diploma mill led the now-“Dr.” Brinkley to pursue grander matters.

Early on in Brinkley’s career, Bill Stittsworth, a farmer with “no lead in his pencil, no powder in his pistol” consulted him. The story goes that Brinkley jokingly remarked that it was too bad the farmer didn’t have the glands of the frisky billy goats outside, but Stittsworth, taking Brinkley seriously, said “Doctor, I want you to transplant [the goat glands] into me.” The doctor did as much, and nine months later, Bill Stittsworth’s wife reportedly bore a son, appropriately named “Billy.”

Seeing the potential to profit from this venture, John Brinkley set up a major advertising campaign centered on “Billy,” and “goat-gland transplantation” took off. Over 16,000 men had their scrotums cut open and tissue plugs from the goat testicles inserted. In the best-case scenario, the men’s bodies simply broke down the goat tissues and healed up, but many patients weren’t so lucky.

The fact that Brinkley was a mediocre medical man at best led to dozens of deaths that were directly attributable to his operation, but hundreds more are believed to have been killed by infection, gangrene, or surgical mishaps. Those deaths also helped lead to the revocation of Brinkley’s license to practice medicine in Kansas in 1930. Unfortunately for the easily swayed, he remained in the goat-gland business for another decade in Texas.

8. THALIDOMIDE TO CURE MORNING SICKNESS AND SLEEPLESSNESS

The 1950s were an era of innovation, new discoveries, and excitement about the potential that science had to improve our lives. Drug companies were thriving on this outlook, and developing cures for even the smallest of ailments. Sleeplessness was a major problem, according to contemporary doctors, but the only reliable sedatives were barbiturates, which had a host of known addiction problems and side effects.

In 1957, the German drug company Grunenthal developed a non-barbiturate, non-habit-forming sleep aid called Thalidomide. It was sold over the counter, and touted as “safe for everyone.” Grunenthal’s adverts boasted that they could not find a dose high enough to kill a rat. By 1960, its sales in Europe and the Commonwealth countries nearly matched that of aspirin. Down in Australia, Dr. William McBride noticed that women who took the drug were often alleviated of their morning sickness, and sales boomed even higher.

It was too good to be true. By 1961, babies were beginning to be born to mothers who had taken Thalidomide in early pregnancy. Many of them had shortened or absent “flipper” limbs. Dr. McBride realized his mistake, and did everything he could to retract his endorsements of the drug, but it was too late for over 12,000 infants. By 1961, the drug was pulled off the market, but Grunenthal offered no recompense or statement regarding its inadequate testing and irresponsible promotion.

Interestingly, the story of Thalidomide had a rather different turn in the United States. Though it technically passed the requirements of the FDA testing authority at the time, FDA inspector Frances Kelsey would not approve its distribution. Ms. Kelsey felt the company provided insufficient data on the efficacy and safety of the drug on its applications, and despite pressure from pharmaceutical companies and other FDA supervisors, she refused to budge on the issue. President John F. Kennedy eventually heralded her as a heroine, after the scandal of the “Thalidomide babies” broke overseas.

This incident further strengthened the testing requirements of the FDA, and greatly increased the oversight and regulation of equivalent organizations in other countries. Interestingly, Thalidomide is once again being used as a drug, albeit with extreme restrictions on who can take it. It’s a chemotherapeutic agent that has significant benefits for multiple myeloma patients, and it has also been used in the treatment of Hansen’s disease (leprosy). Patients on the drug must have pregnancy tests and use reliable contraception if they are sexually active, and must not become pregnant within 4 weeks of coming off the drug.

This story first ran in 2013.

Can You Guess How These Diseases Were Treated in the 1700s?

17 Bizarre Natural Remedies From the 1700s

In the late 1740s, John Wesley—a British evangelist and the co-founder of Methodism—published Primitive Physick, or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. The tome gave regular people ways to cure themselves with natural remedies, using items they could find in their own homes.

When in doubt, Welsey thought that drinking cold water or taking cold baths could cure most illnesses (including breast cancer); some of his suggestions, like using chamomile tea to soothe an upset stomach, have survived today. Other natural remedies he whipped up, though, are decidedly strange. Here are a few of them.

1. To Cure An Ague

Wesley describes an ague as “an intermitting fever, each fit of which is preceded by a cold shivering and goes off in a sweat.” There are many natural remedies for curing it, but all must be preceded by taking a “gentle vomit,” which, if taken two hours before the fit, Wesley says will generally prevent it, and may even cure the ague. If the vomiting fails, however, Wesley suggests wearing a bag of groundsel, a weed, “on the pit of the stomach, renewing it two hours before the fit.” The weed should be shredded small, and the side of the bag facing the skin should have holes in it.

Should this not work, Wesley suggests a remedy that requires a stronger stomach: “Make six middling pills of cobwebs, take one a little before the cold fit: Two a little before the next fit: The other three, if Need be, a little before the third fit. I never knew this fail.”

2. To Cure a Canine Appetite

Wesley turns to a Dr. Scomberg for the cure to this condition, which is defined by Wesley as “an insatiable desire of eating”: If there’s no vomiting, canine appetite “is often cured by a small Bit of Bread dipt in Wine, and applied to the Nostrils."

3. To Cure Asthma

Tar water, sea water, nettle juice, and quicksilver are all acceptable cures for what Wesley calls "moist Asthma" (which is characterized by “a difficulty of breathing … the patient spits much”). But a method that “seldom fails,” Wesley says, is living “a fortnight on boiled carrots only.”

Dry and convulsive asthma, meanwhile, can be treated with toad, dried and powdered. “Make it into small pills,” Wesley writes, “and take one every hour until the convulsions fade.”

4. To Prevent or Cure Nose Bleeds

Drinking whey and eating raisins every day, Wesley says, can help prevent nose bleeds. Other methods for preventing or curing the phenomenon include “hold[ing] a red hot poker under the nose” and “steep[ing] a linnen rag in sharp vinegar, burn[ing] it, and blow[ing] it up the nose with a Quill.”

5. To Cure a “Cold in the Head”

Getting rid of this common ailment is easy, according to Wesley: Just “pare very thin the yellow rind of an orange," he writes. "Roll it up inside out, and thrust a roll inside each nostril.”

6. To Cure “An Habitual Colick”

Today's doctors define colic as a condition suffered by "a healthy, well-fed infant who cries for more than three hours per day, for more than three days per week, for more than three weeks." But adults can get it, too; it's characterized by severe stomach pains and spasms (which, we now know, can be an indication of other conditions, like Crohn's disease and irritable bowel syndrome). To cure it, Wesley suggests this odd remedy: “Wear a thin soft Flannel on the part.”

6. To Cure “White Specks in the Eye”

While it's unclear exactly what "white specks in the eye" actually is—eye floaters, maybe—Wesley suggests that, when “going to bed, put a little ear-wax on the Speck.—This has cured many.”

7. To Cure the Falling Sickness

Those who suffer from this illness “fall to the ground, either quite stiff, or convulsed all over, utterly senseless, gnashing his teeth, and foaming at the mouth.” To cure the condition, Wesley recommends “an entire milk diet for three months: It rarely fails.” During fits, though, “blow up the nose a little powder’d ginger.”

8. To Cure Gout

“Regard not them who say the gout ought not to be cured. They mean, it cannot,” Wesley writes. (They, here, might be referring to regular practitioners of medicine.) “I know it cannot by their regular prescriptions. But I have known it cured in many cases, without any ill effect following.” Gout in the foot or hand can be cured by “apply[ing] a raw lean beef-steak. Change it once in 12 hours, ‘till cured.”

Curing the gout in any limb can be accomplished by beginning this ritual at six in the evening: “Undress and wrap yourself up in Blankets. — Then put your Legs up to the Knees in Water, as hot as you can bear it. As it cools, let hot Water be poured in, so as to keep you in a strong Sweat till ten. Then go into a Bed well warm'd and sweat till Morning. — I have known this to cure an inveterate Gout.”

9. To Cure Jaundice

Wesley suggests curing jaundice—which turns the skin and whites of the eyes yellow (thanks to too much bilirubin in the blood, we now know)—by wearing "leaves of Celandine upon and under the feet." Other possible cures include taking a small pill of Castile soap in the morning for eight to 10 days, or "as much lies on a shilling of calcin’d egg-shells, three mornings fasting; and walk till you sweat.”

10. To Cure “The Iliac Passion”

This decidedly unpleasant condition—which Wesley defines as a “violent kind of Colic ... the Excrements are thrown up by the mouth in vomiting,” eww—has a few cures, including “apply[ing] warm Flannel soaked in Spirits of Wine.” Most delightful, however, is the cure recommended by a Dr. Sydenham: “Hold a live Puppy constantly on the Belly.”

11. To Cure “the Palpitation or Beating of the Heart”

Among the remedies for this ailment are the mundane “drink a Pint of cold Water,” the stinky-but-probably-not-effective “apply outwardly a Rag dipt In vinegar,” and the very exciting “be electrified” (which is suggested for a few other illnesses as well).

12. To Cure Pleurisy

This illness is characterized by “a Fever attended with a violent pain in the Side, and a Pulse remarkably hard.” (It's caused, we now know, when the double membrane that surrounds the lungs inside the chest cavity becomes inflamed.) Wesley’s first suggested remedy involves applying “to the Side Onions roasted in the Embers, mixt with Cream." Next up is filling the core of an apple with frankincense “stop[ping] it close with the Piece you cut out and roast[ing] it in Ashes. Mash and eat it.” Sounds delicious!

13. To cure Quinsy

“A quinsy,” Wesley explains, “is a Fever attended with Difficulty of Swallowing, and often Breathing.” (Today, the condition is called peritonsillar abscess and it's known to be a complication of tonsillitis.) He suggests applying “a large White-bread Toast, half an Inch thick, dipt in Brandy, to the crown of the Head till it dries.”

14. To Cure “A Windy Rupture”

Wesley doesn't say what, exactly, this condition is, though a Google search brings up the term hernia ventosa, which another medical book of the same time defines as a "false hernia ... where the wind is pent up by the coats of the Testes, inflating and blowing up the inguen," or the groin area. Wesley prescribes the following method to cure it: “Warm Cow-dung well. Spread it thick on Leather, [throwing] some cummin seeds on it, and apply it hot. When cold, put on a new one.” This, he says, “commonly cures a Child (keeping his Bed) in two Days.”

15. To Cure a "Tooth-ach"

Wesley suggests being electrified through the tooth. If that’s too extreme for you, try “rub[bing] the Cheek a Quarter of an Hour ... Or, put[ting] a Clove of Garlick into the Ear.”

16. To Stop Vomiting

Induced vomiting was an important part of Wesley's medical theories (remember the "gentle vomit" that could stop the ague?). But if a patient was vomiting and it wasn't a part of the prescribed method for curing him, Wesley advised "after every Vomiting, drink a pint of warm water; or, apply a large onion slit, to the Pit of the Stomach."

17. To Heal a Cut

Wesley suggests holding the cut closed "with your thumb for a quarter of an hour" (what we might call applying pressure these days), then dipping a rag in cold water and wrapping the cut in it. Another method: "Bind on toasted cheese," Wesley writes. "This will cure a deep cut." Pounded grass, applied fresh every 12 hours, will also do the trick.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER