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5 Bizarre and Scary Historical Headache Cures

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Since the late nineteenth century, analgesic drugs have been available to the masses to alleviate general pain, including that caused by headaches. While that might not always do the trick, it sounds a lot better than these alternative treatments from history.

1. Burn your head

Naturally, if your brain feels like it might explode out of your skull, the thing to do is add more fire. That’s what Arateus of Cappadocia, an ancient Greek physician, recommended. Hilariously, Arateus notes that his suggestions might just be “hazardous treatments”:

[S]have off the hair (which yet on its own is good for the head) and cauterize [burn] superficially down to the muscles. If you wish to cauterize down to the bone, carry it out at a site where there are no muscles. For if you burn muscles, you will provoke cramps. Some physicians incise down to the bone on the forehead along the border of the hair. They abrade or chisel the bone down to the diploe and let flesh grow over the place. Others perforate the bone down to the meninges. These are hazardous treatments. You have to apply them when the headache persists after all that has been done; the patient keeps courage and the body is vigorous.

2. Put a dead mole on it

Praise be for Ali ibn Isa al-Kahhal (“the oculist”), who managed to bring medicine forward several hundred years through his work. Ibn Isa was—back in the 10th century—the first physician to discover the symptoms that sufferers of Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada syndrome, an eye disease, would regularly present. And though he was in many ways a smart man ahead of his time, the lack of certainty in medicine at the time meant that ibn Isa was a little wide of the mark sometimes. It was for that reason he could say with a straight face that the best way to head off those pangs of pain was to lash a dead mole to your head. Problem solved.

3. Run a warm, sweet bath

Moses Maimonides was a 12th century physician and astronomer born in Cordoba. And because headaches are as old as time immemorial, even back then people came to Maimonides complaining of head pain. His cure was unconventional, but didn’t involve dead moles or worse: immerse yourself in a bath of warm, sweetened water (honey was best), which acts to draw out the vapours that bring aches to one’s head. Truthfully, it’s not terrible advice—plenty of people after a hard day, possibly feeling fuzzy in the head, will run a bath and soak in it for several hours.

4. Add some eels to the bath

Electricity and the brain do not mix all that well, truth be told. Yet for centuries now, electricity and the brain have been mixed through medicine. (Electroshock treatment is just one example.) The Dutch Society of Sciences published a set of treatises in 1762, contained within which is a scene reported from South America espousing the benefits of electric eels in easing brain pain:

When a slave complains of a bad headache, he has them put one of their hands on their head and the other on the fish, and they thereby will be helped immediately, without exception.

Hear that? Without exception.

5. Trepanning

Ah, the age-old act of trepanning: so popular that it achieved a resurgence as a headache treatment 2500 years after it first appeared. The cavemen around in the 8th century BC put holes in their skulls to alleviate pressure on the brain (without a care for the damage they were doing to their bodies). The treatment never properly went away, but it did fall out of fashion.

Until the 1600s. Suddenly, trepanation was everywhere! Trepanning happened hither and thither, great holes being bored into brain-bearing skulls to prevent pain. If only they’d had the ability to pop some pills, an awful lot of suffering and exposure to infection could have been avoided.

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Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
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The POW Olympics of World War II
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism
Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism

With the outbreak of World War II prompting a somber and divisive mood across the globe, it seemed impossible civility could be introduced in time for the 1940 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan to be held.

So they weren’t. Neither were the 1944 Games, which were scheduled for London. But one Polish Prisoner of War camp was determined to keep the tradition alive. The Woldenberg Olympics were made up entirely of war captives who wanted—and needed—to feel a sense of camaraderie and normalcy in their most desperate hours.

In a 2004 NBC mini-documentary that aired during their broadcast of the Games, it was reported that Polish officers under German control in the Oflag II-C camp wanted to maintain their physical conditioning as a tribute to Polish athlete Janusz Kusocinski. Unlike another Polish POW camp that held unofficial Games under a veil of secrecy in 1940, the guards of Woldenberg allowed the ’44 event to proceed with the provision that no fencing, archery, javelin, or pole-vaulting competitions took place. (Perhaps the temptation to impale their captors would have proven too much for the men.)

Music, art, and sculptures were put on display. Detainees were also granted permission to make their own program and even commemorative postage stamps of the event courtesy of the camp’s homegrown “post office.” An Olympic flag was crafted out of spare bed sheets, which the German officers, in a show of contagious sportsman’s spirit, actually saluted.

The hand-made Olympic flag from Woldenberg.

Roughly 369 of the 7000 prisoners participated. Most of the men competed in multiple contests, which ranged from handball and basketball to chess. Boxing was included—but owing to the fragile state of prisoners, broken bones resulted in a premature end to the combat.

Almost simultaneously, another Polish POW camp in Gross Born (pop: 3000) was holding their own ceremony. Winners received medals made of cardboard. Both were Oflag sites, which were primarily for officers; it’s been speculated the Games were allowed because German forces had respect for prisoners who held military titles.

A gymnastics demonstration in the camp.

The grass-roots Olympics in both camps took place in July and August 1944. By January 1945, prisoners from each were evacuated. An unknown number perished during these “death marches,” but one of the flags remained in the possession of survivor Antoni Grzesik. The Lieutenant donated it to the Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism in 1974, where it joined a flag recovered from the 1940 Games. Both remain there today—symbols of a sporting life that kept hope alive for thousands of men who, for a brief time, could celebrate life instead of lamenting its loss.

Additional Sources: “The Olympic Idea Transcending War [PDF],” Olympic Review, 1996; “The Olympic Movement Remembered in the Polish Prisoner of War Camps in 1944 [PDF],” Journal of Olympic History, Spring 1995; "Olympics Behind Barbed Wire," Journal of Olympic History, March 2014.

 All images courtesy of Warsaw Museum of Sport and Tourism. 

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President John Tyler's Grandsons Are Still Alive
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Here's the most amazing thing you'll ever read about our 10th president:

John Tyler was born in 1790. He took office in 1841, after William Henry Harrison died. And he has two living grandchildren.

Not great-great-great-grandchildren. Their dad was Tyler’s son.

How is this possible?

The Tyler men have a habit of having kids very late in life. Lyon Gardiner Tyler, one of President Tyler’s 15 kids, was born in 1853. He fathered Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. in 1924, and Harrison Ruffin Tyler in 1928.

We placed a somewhat awkward call to the Charles City County History Center in Virginia to check in on the Tylers.

After we shared this fact on Twitter in 2012, Dan Amira interviewed Harrison Tyler for New York Magazine. Lyon Tyler spoke to the Daughters of the American Revolution a while back. They were profiled by The Times of London. And Snopes is also in on the fact.

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