8 Cures That Did More Harm Than Good

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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.

9 Fascinating Facts About the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is so named because it “wanders” like a vagabond, sending out sensory fibers from your brainstem to your visceral organs. The vagus nerve, the longest of the cranial nerves, controls your inner nerve center—the parasympathetic nervous system. And it oversees a vast range of crucial functions, communicating motor and sensory impulses to every organ in your body. New research has revealed that it may also be the missing link to treating chronic inflammation, and the beginning of an exciting new field of treatment for serious, incurable diseases. Here are nine facts about this powerful nerve bundle.

1. THE VAGUS NERVE PREVENTS INFLAMMATION.

A certain amount of inflammation after injury or illness is normal. But an overabundance is linked to many diseases and conditions, from sepsis to the autoimmune condition rheumatoid arthritis. The vagus nerve operates a vast network of fibers stationed like spies around all your organs. When it gets a signal for incipient inflammation—the presence of cytokines or a substance called tumor necrosis factor (TNF)—it alerts the brain and draws out anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters that regulate the body’s immune response.

2. IT HELPS YOU MAKE MEMORIES.

A University of Virginia study in rats showed that stimulating their vagus nerves strengthened their memory. The action released the neurotransmitter norepinephrine into the amygdala, which consolidated memories. Related studies were done in humans, suggesting promising treatments for conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

3. IT HELPS YOU BREATHE.

The neurotransmitter acetylcholine, elicited by the vagus nerve, tells your lungs to breathe. It’s one of the reasons that Botox—often used cosmetically—can be potentially dangerous, because it interrupts your acetylcholine production. You can, however, also stimulate your vagus nerve by doing abdominal breathing or holding your breath for four to eight counts.

4. IT'S INTIMATELY INVOLVED WITH YOUR HEART.

The vagus nerve is responsible for controlling the heart rate via electrical impulses to specialized muscle tissue—the heart’s natural pacemaker—in the right atrium, where acetylcholine release slows the pulse. By measuring the time between your individual heart beats, and then plotting this on a chart over time, doctors can determine your heart rate variability, or HRV. This data can offer clues about the resilience of your heart and vagus nerve.

5. IT INITIATES YOUR BODY'S RELAXATION RESPONSE.

When your ever-vigilant sympathetic nervous system revs up the fight or flight responses—pouring the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline into your body—the vagus nerve tells your body to chill out by releasing acetylcholine. The vagus nerve’s tendrils extend to many organs, acting like fiber-optic cables that send instructions to release enzymes and proteins like prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin, which calm you down. People with a stronger vagus response may be more likely to recover more quickly after stress, injury, or illness.

6. IT TRANSLATES BETWEEN YOUR GUT AND YOUR BRAIN.

Your gut uses the vagus nerve like a walkie-talkie to tell your brain how you’re feeling via electric impulses called “action potentials". Your gut feelings are very real.

7. OVERSTIMULATION OF THE VAGUS NERVE IS THE MOST COMMON CAUSE OF FAINTING.

If you tremble or get queasy at the sight of blood or while getting a flu shot, you’re not weak. You’re experiencing “vagal syncope.” Your body, responding to stress, overstimulates the vagus nerve, causing your blood pressure and heart rate to drop. During extreme syncope, blood flow is restricted to your brain, and you lose consciousness. But most of the time you just have to sit or lie down for the symptoms to subside.

8. ELECTRICAL STIMULATION OF THE VAGUS NERVE REDUCES INFLAMMATION AND MAY INHIBIT IT ALTOGETHER.

Neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey was the first to show that stimulating the vagus nerve can significantly reduce inflammation. Results on rats were so successful, he reproduced the experiment in humans with stunning results. The creation of implants to stimulate the vagus nerve via electronic implants showed a drastic reduction, and even remission, in rheumatoid arthritis—which has no known cure and is often treated with the toxic drugs—hemorrhagic shock, and other equally serious inflammatory syndromes.

9. VAGUS NERVE STIMULATION HAS CREATED A NEW FIELD OF MEDICINE.

Spurred on by the success of vagal nerve stimulation to treat inflammation and epilepsy, a burgeoning field of medical study, known as bioelectronics, may be the future of medicine. Using implants that deliver electric impulses to various body parts, scientists and doctors hope to treat illness with fewer medications and fewer side effects.

The Anti-Spitting Campaigns Designed to Stop the Spread of Tuberculosis

A Dr. Dettweiler sputum flask, circa 1910
A Dr. Dettweiler sputum flask, circa 1910

In the 19th century, cities were grimy places, where thousands of people lived in overcrowded tenement buildings and walked streets polluted with trash, sewage, and the carcasses of dead animals. Unsurprisingly, these cities were also hotbeds of infectious disease.

One of the leading causes of death was tuberculosis, which spreads from person to person in the tiny droplets that spray through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. "In the 19th century, tuberculosis [was] the greatest single cause of death among New Yorkers," explains Anne Garner, the curator of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Academy of Medicine Library and the co-curator of the Museum of the City of New York’s new exhibition, "Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis."

In the 19th century, tuberculosis killed one in every seven people in Europe and the U.S., and it was particularly deadly for city dwellers. Between 1810 and 1815, the disease—then commonly known as consumption, or the white plague—was to blame for more than a quarter of the recorded deaths in New York City. While New York wasn't alone among urban centers in having startlingly high rates of tuberculosis, its quest to eradicate the disease was pioneering: It became the first U.S. city to ban spitting.

"BEWARE THE CARELESS SPITTER"

Anti-tuberculosis pamphlets
Tuberculosis warnings from the Committee on Prevention of Tuberculosis that appeared on New York City streetcar transfers in 1908, reprinted by the Michigan Board of Health in 1909

In 1882, Robert Koch became the first to discover the cause of tuberculosis: a bacterium later named Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which he isolated from samples taken from infected animals. (Koch won the Nobel Prize in 1905 for his work.) He determined that the disease was spread through bacteria-infected sputum, the mix of phlegm and spit coughed up during a respiratory infection. That meant that rampant public spitting—often referred to as expectorating—was spreading the disease.

In 1896, in response to the growing understanding of the threat to public health, New York City became the first American metropolis to ban spitting on sidewalks, the floors in public buildings, and on public transit, giving officials the ability to slap wayward spitters with a fine or a jail sentence. Over the next 15 years, almost 150 other U.S. cities followed suit and banned public spitting [PDF].

The New York City health department and private groups like the National Tuberculosis Association, the Women’s Health Protective Association, and the Brooklyn Anti-Tuberculosis Committee generated anti-spitting slogans such as "Spitting Is Dangerous, Indecent, and Against the Law," "Beware the Careless Spitter," and "No Spit, No Consumption." They made posters decrying spitting (among other unhealthy habits) and reminding people of the ban. Members of the public were encouraged to confront defiant spitters, or, at the very least, give them the stink eye. While there were many other factors to blame for the spread of tuberculosis—like dangerously overcrowded, poorly ventilated tenement housing and widespread malnutrition—public spitters became the literal poster children of infection.

New York City officials followed through on the threat of punitive action for errant spitters. More than 2500 people were arrested under the statute between 1896 and 1910, though most only received a small fine—on average, less than $1 (in 1896, that was the equivalent of about $30 today). Few other cities were as committed to enforcing their sputum-related laws as New York was. In 1910, the National Tuberculosis Association reported that less than half of cities with anti-spitting regulations on the books had actually made any arrests.

Despite the law, the problem remained intractable in New York. Spitting in streetcars posed a particularly widespread, and disgusting, issue: Men would spit straight onto the floor of the enclosed car, where pools of phlegm would gather. Women wearing long dresses were at risk of picking up sputum on their hemlines wherever they went. And the law didn’t seem to stop most spitters. As one disgusted streetcar rider wrote in a letter to the editor of The New York Times in 1903, “That the law is ignored is evident to every passenger upon these public conveyances: that it is maliciously violated would not in some cases be too strong an assertion.”

The situation wasn’t much better two decades later, either. “Expectorating on the sidewalks and in public places is probably the greatest menace to health with which we have to contend,” New York City Mayor John Francis Hylan said in a 1920 appeal for citizens to help clean up the city streets.

THE BLUE HENRY

A blue sputum flask
New York Academy of Medicine Library

Spitting laws weren't the only way that health authorities tried to rein in the spread of TB at the turn of the century. Anti-tuberculosis campaigns of the time also featured their own accessory: the sputum bottle.

Faced with the fact that sick people would cough up sputum no matter what a poster in a streetcar told them, in the late 19th century, doctors and health authorities all over the world began instructing people with tuberculosis to spit into pocket-sized containers, then carry it around with them. “A person with tuberculosis must never spit on the floor or sidewalk or in street cars, but always into a cuspidor or into a paper cup, which he should have with him at all time, and which can be burned,” advised the New York City Department of Health’s 1908 publication Do Not Spit: Tuberculosis (Consumption) Catechism and Primer for School Children. These containers were known as cuspidors, spittoons, or simply sputum cups or sputum bottles.

Among the most well-known of these sputum-carrying receptacles was the “Blue Henry,” a pocket flask made of cobalt-blue glass that was originally manufactured by the German sanatorium pioneer Peter Dettweiler, who himself had suffered from tuberculosis.

“The sputum bottle was like a portable flask that could be used to collect this sticky phlegm that was produced by the irritated lungs of a person suffering from tuberculosis,” Garner says. While they came in various shapes, sizes, and materials, the fancier versions would have a spring-loaded lid and could be opened from both sides, so that you could spit into a funnel-like opening on one side and then unscrew the bottle to clean out the sputum receptacle later.

Dettweiler's device and the similar devices that followed became popular all over the world as doctors and governments sought to contain the spread of tuberculosis. These receptacles became a fixture in hospitals and at sanatoriums where tuberculosis patients went to recuperate, and were a common hand-out from anti-tuberculosis charities that worked with TB-afflicted patients.

In the early 1900s, the New York Charity Organization Society was one of them. Its Committee for the Prevention of Tuberculosis raised money to buy its New York City-based clients better food, new beds, and of course, sputum cups. (Likely the paper kind, rather than the glass Dettweiler flasks.) The generosity wasn't unconditional, though. The society would potentially pull its aid if charity workers showed up for a surprise home inspection to find unsanitary conditions, like overflowing sputum cups that were not being properly disinfected [PDF].

Eventually, the city itself began handing out sputum cups. In an effort to reduce the contagion, by 1916 a large number of cities—such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and Boston—dedicated part of their municipal budgets to paying for tuberculosis supplies like paper sputum cups that would be handed out to the public for free.

A ad for anti-TB supplies from the Journal of Outdoor Life
An advertisement that ran in the Journal of Outdoor Life—which billed itself as “the anti-tuberculosis magazine"—in 1915

Though paper sputum cups could be burned, glass or metal flasks had to be cleaned regularly. Doctors recommended that the sputum bottles contain a strong disinfectant that could kill off the tuberculosis bacilli, and that the receptacles be cleaned and disinfected every morning and evening by rinsing them with a lye solution and boiling them in water. As for the sputum itself, burning was the preferred method of sanitizing anything contaminated with TB at the time, and sputum was no exception—although rural consumptives were encouraged to bury it in the garden if burning wasn’t practical.

In an era where infectious disease was often associated with poor, immigrant communities, sputum bottles made it possible to go out in public without drawing the same attention to your condition that hacking up phlegm into the street would. “You could discreetly carry them around and then take them out and people wouldn’t necessarily know that you were suffering from the disease,” Garner explains. Or at least, somewhat discretely, since they soon became widely associated with consumptives. A Dr. Greeley, for one, argued that ordinary sputum bottles were “so conspicuous as to be objectionable," and suggested people spit into toilet paper and put that in a pouch instead. That idea didn't quite take off.

And while hiding your infectious status is not good for public health, the sputum flasks did lower the risk that you were infecting the people around you as you coughed and sneezed. “As long as you were doing it into the bottle, you probably were not infecting other people,” Garner says.

Not many of these sputum bottles have survived, in part because it was standard practice to burn everything in a tuberculosis patient’s room after they died to prevent germs from spreading. Those that remain are now collector's items, held in the archives of institutes like Australia's Museums Victoria; the Museum of Health Care in Kingston, Canada; and the New York Academy of Medicine Library.

TUBERCULOSIS TODAY

Unfortunately, neither anti-spitting propaganda nor sputum flasks managed to stop the spread of tuberculosis. Real relief from the disease didn’t come until 1943, when biochemist Selman Waksman discovered that streptomycin, isolated from a microbe found in soil, could be an effective antibiotic for tuberculosis. (He won the Nobel Prize for it, 47 years after Koch won his.)

And while carrying a cute flask to spit your disease-ridden phlegm into sounds quaint now, tuberculosis isn’t a relic of the past. Even with medical advances, it has never been eradicated. It remains one of the most devastating infectious agents in the world, and kills more than a million people worldwide every year—the exact number is debated, but could be as high as 1.8 million. And, like many infectious diseases, it is evolving to become antibiotic resistant.

Sputum flasks could come back into fashion yet.

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