10 Dubious Victorian Cures From the First Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy

Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0 (cropped)
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0 (cropped)

In his work Of the Epidemics, the Greek physician Hippocrates encouraged doctors to “have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm.” Yet the history of medicine has been an exercise in trial and error, with remedies sometimes proving more dangerous than the disease.

Examples of such dubious and sometimes potentially deadly cures abound in the first edition of The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, the oldest continuously published English-language medical textbook. First published by the American drug manufacturer Merck & Co in 1899, the manual’s original edition suggests remedies such as hot baths for heat exhaustion, coffee for insomnia, nitroglycerin for headaches, and opium for constipation.

“What’s most fascinating to me are drugs that have an immediate dangerous effect,” says Robert S. Porter, M.D., editor-in-chief of the manual’s 20th edition, which was published earlier this year. “Cocaine for angina? Cocaine is a vasoconstrictor that causes heart attack. Give it to someone with angina and they might die. The bulk of the book is things that simply don't work—that are useless or odd—but these ones really raise questions as to how people could recommend them.”

Here's a selection of puzzling remedies from the first edition, some of which went on to be recommended for decades.

1. ARSENIC FOR ANEMIA

A page from the Merck Manual about anemia
Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

Arsenic was one of the top remedies the manual recommended for anemia. Though arsenic had been known as a poison since ancient times, medicines containing small doses of the substance were long used for conditions ranging from anthrax to syphilis to anemia. By the 19th century, arsenic was being inhaled as vapors, ingested, injected, and given in enemas for a variety of ailments. In fact, so many people suffered symptoms—such as rashes, stomach distress, and headaches—from taking arsenic remedies during the Victorian era that their ailments are now sometimes referred to as “Fowler’s disease," after the popular remedy Fowler’s Solution, which contained potassium arsenite.

2. LAXATIVES FOR CHICKENPOX

A page from the Merck Manual about chickenpox
Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

Before chickenpox vaccinations became available in the U.S. in 1995, an average of 4 million people each year suffered through itchy outbreaks. When the Merck Manual was first published, part of the comprehensive treatment plan for an "eruptive fever"—whether it was chickenpox, smallpox, or scarlet fever—was laxatives, ideally a dose of castor oil. The idea was to purge the body of the infectious disease, but such treatment usually just compounded the misery and forced the patient to stay close to the toilet.

3. STRYCHNINE FOR CONSTIPATION

A page from the Merck Manual about constipation
Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

Even a tiny dose of strychnine can cause convulsions. Yet the Merck Manual, following the medical practice of the day, recommended small amounts as a treatment for acute constipation. Commonly derived from the plant Strychnos nux-vomica, strychnine was thought to improve gastric function. (Strychnine injections were also recommended for both flatulence and ulcers.) Opium and turpentine were also recommended, but patients probably derived more relief from the less dramatic manual-recommended regimens, such as eating apples and figs or drinking coffee.

4. CHLOROFORM FOR HICCUPS

A page from the Merck Manual about hiccups
Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

Bad case of the hiccups? Today, you might be told to hold your breath or drink water. But in 1899, your doctor might recommend inhaling chloroform. An organic compound that also a popular anesthetic in the 19th and early 20th century, chloroform eventually fell out of favor because of its potential to damage the nervous system, liver, and kidneys. Other hiccup remedies listed in the Merck manual included nitroglycerin and the slightly less toxic sugar and vinegar.

5. INHALING SMOKE FOR ASTHMA

A page from the Merck Manual about asthma
Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

As counterintuitive as it seems today, the manual noted that "smoking is sometimes beneficial" for asthma, adding that “cannabis indica can be used in chronic cases.” The manual was far from alone in recommending the practice; throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, inhaling the fumes of tobacco and cannabis, as well as stramonium (a hallucination-inducing nightshade) and lobelia (a flowering plant known for its sedative properties) were popular treatments for asthmatics. There were even special anti-asthma cigarettes. We now know that inhaling any kind of smoke has been shown to damage and eventually reduce the number of cilia—the fine lung filaments which, when healthy, help transport mucus in the lungs—which only leads to a worsening of asthma symptoms.

6. BLOODLETTING FOR NAUSEA

A page from the Merck Manual about nausea
Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

Bloodletting—with leeches or other means—has been used to treat various ailments, including excessive bleeding, for thousands of years. The Ancient Greek physicians thought that it was sometimes necessary to balance blood and other bodily fluids, known as humors. The practice remained a standard treatment for many ailments, including nausea and morning sickness during pregnancy, well into the 19th century. It was thought to regulate the pulse, alleviate fever, and calm pain. While bloodletting can actually help with a few conditions, such as hemochromatosis (a genetic disorder leading to abnormal iron accumulation in the liver), doctors eventually realized that bleeding could also weaken patients and that frequent cutting could lead to infections.

As well as this traditional remedy, the manual’s first edition also recommended cocaine, the wonder drug of the day, to treat all kinds of nausea. Better and less stomach-turning effects could have been achieved with another recommended remedy: cinnamon.

7. COLD DOUCHES FOR INSOMNIA

A page from the Merck Manual about insomnia
Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

Alcohol, cannabis indica, and “cold douches” were effective remedies for insomnia, according to the Merck Manual. Cold douches—being blasted with cold water—might not seem sleep-inducing, yet in the late 19th and early 20th century this form of hydrotherapy was recommended as a way to improve circulation, fight infection, and treat headaches as well as insomnia. “By this means, the brain is enabled to resume a healthier mode of action, and sleep follows as a matter of course,” wrote Dr. Henry M. Lyman in his 1885 book Insomnia and Other Disorders of Sleep. Other remedies the manual recommended for insomnia included coffee, alcohol, and putting hot water bags on your feet while applying cold ones to your head.

8. BELLADONNA FOR COLIC

A page from the Merck Manual about colic
Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

Misguided medical notions were also applied to easing colic—the severe bouts of stomach pain often suffered by very young babies. The Merck Manual recommended ammonia, turpentine, and belladonna—a poisonous plant in the deadly nightshade family—for relief from colic spasms. Belladonna is still used modern medicines for adults (it's the main ingredient in the drops your eye doctor uses to dilate your eyes), but according to the FDA, “there is no known safe dose or toxic dose of belladonna in children.” In 2010, the FDA warned against its use in homeopathic teething tablets.

9. LEECHES FOR EARACHES

A page from the Merck Manual about leeches for earaches
Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

Using leeches for an ear infection might sound disgusting at best, but there was some medical justification for the manual's recommendation. Once leeches are firmly attached to their host, they can numb pain, while peptides and proteins in their saliva prevent blood clotting, so they can help drain an infection. Modern medicine has recently taken another look at leeches: In 2004, the FDA decided the creatures met the definition of a live medical device, since their tiny jaws (and anticoagulants) keep blood flowing, which helps wounds to heal. They can also be used to break up blood clots, treat varicose veins, and improve other circulatory disorders.

10. COCAINE FOR ALCOHOLISM

A page from the Merck Manual about alcoholism
Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

In the 1880s, Sigmund Freud helped popularize the idea of using cocaine to treat alcoholism, calling it a “magical drug.” In its heyday, cocaine was also promoted as a cure for morphine addiction, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and migraines. It was available over the counter in tonics, powders, wines, and soft drinks. Patients likely felt energized by regular cocaine infusions, but they soon became habituated. (Freud experimented on himself for a few years until the mounting evidence of cocaine’s addictive nature proved too much to ignore; the drug was made illegal in the U.S. in 1914.) The 1899 manual also offered simpler, less dangerous—but also likely ineffective—ways to battle alcohol cravings, including slowly sucking an orange or drinking water hot ("one pint drunk as hot as possible an hour before meals will remove craving"), or cold in small sips.

10 Fascinating Facts About Anne Boleyn

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Anne Boleyn was one of England’s most controversial queens. In 1533, King Henry VIII annulled his first marriage (to Catherine of Aragon) and was in the process of breaking with the Catholic Church to wed the charming noblewoman. But their happiness was not to last: Just three years later, Anne was executed. It’s a compelling story, one that’s been dramatized in plays, novels, movies, and TV shows. But today, we’re setting the pop culture depictions aside to take a look at the real Anne Boleyn.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s formative years were spent in France and Belgium.

Born in the early 16th century (possibly in 1501 or 1507), Anne was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, an English diplomat. As a child, she went abroad to study in Margaret of Austria’s court, located in present-day Belgium, and later continued her education as a member of Mary Tudor’s elegant household in Paris. By the time she returned to her native England in the early 1520s, Boleyn had mastered the French language—and she carried herself like a Parisian, too. “No one,” wrote one of Boleyn’s contemporaries, “would ever have taken her to be English by her manners, but [instead] a native-born Frenchwoman."

  1. Anne Boleyn played the lute.

Even Boleyn’s harshest critics had to admit that she was a good dancer. She was also fond of music, and reportedly played the lute (a guitar-like instrument popular at Tudor gatherings) quite well. A songbook that bears her inscription can be found at London’s Royal College of Music. It’s unclear if Boleyn ever owned this book, but its selection of tunes is historically significant.

  1. Anne Boleyn almost married someone other than King Henry VIII.

In 1522, Thomas Boleyn and his cousin, Sir Piers Butler, were both trying to claim some Irish land holdings that had belonged to one of their mutual ancestors. To settle the dispute, Anne's uncle suggested marrying Anne to Butler’s son, James, so that the factions could be unified in the future. By the time Anne returned to England, the marriage was already in the works. King Henry VIII—whose mistress at that time was Anne's sister Mary—supported the match, but the marriage never went through. Anne also had a romantic relationship with one Henry Percy, a future Earl of Northumberland who wound up marrying the Lady Mary Talbot.

  1. Anne Boleyn was pregnant at her coronation.

King Henry VIII’s marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was annulled on May 23, 1533. He’d been courting Anne Boleyn for years; many of his love letters survive to this day. As the king’s infatuation grew, so did his desire for a healthy male heir—which Catherine never gave him. But Pope Clement VII refused to dissolve the royal marriage. So the Archbishop of Canterbury went ahead and annulled it. Henry VIII would soon be declared “Supreme Head of the Church of England,” severing its ties with the Vatican. Boleyn was crowned queen on June 1, 1533. Her first child, Princess Elizabeth, was born a little over three months later.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s emblem was a white falcon.

The Boleyns took a white falcon from the traditional Butler family crest. For Anne’s coronation ceremony, poet Nicholas Udall wrote a ballad that likened the new queen to this elegant bird of prey. “Behold and see the Falcon White!” declared one verse. “How she beginneth her wings to spread, and for our comfort to take her flight” [PDF]. The new queen also used a white falcon badge as her personal emblem; at some point, a graffitied version of this was carved into the Tower of London.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s religious views are hard to pin down, but she appeared to sympathize with reformers.

At a time when Latin-language Bibles were the norm in Catholic Europe, Boleyn consistently supported the publication of English translations—a controversial notion at the time. As queen, she and her husband arranged for the release of Nicholas Bourbon, a French humanist whose criticisms of saint-worship and other theological matters had landed him in jail. Bourbon went to England, where he tutored Boleyn’s nephew (at her request).

  1. Anne Boleyn was the first of Henry VIII’s queens to get beheaded.

Like Catherine before her, Anne Boleyn failed to deliver Henry VIII’s long-sought male heir. In 1536, she found herself on trial, accused of high treason, adultery, and incest. (Rumors circulated that she was having an affair with her brother, George.) Though many historians dismiss these allegations, they sealed her fate nevertheless. Boleyn was beheaded on May 19, 1536. Henry VIII wed his third wife, Jane Seymour, that same month. Two spouses later, history repeated itself when the king had queen number five—Catherine Howard—decapitated in 1542.

  1. It has been claimed that Anne Boleyn had 11 fingers.

When you replace a popular monarch and spur the change of the religious fabric of an entire country, you're bound to make enemies. One of Boleyn’s detractors claimed that she had a “devilish spirit,” while another famously called her a “goggle-eyed whore.”

And then there’s Catholic propagandist Nicholas Sander, who wrote an unflattering description of the former queen many years after she died. According to him, Boleyn had “a large wen [wart or cyst] under her chin,” a “projecting tooth under the upper lip” and “six fingers” on her right hand. But his claims are highly suspect. There’s no proof that Sander ever laid eye on Boleyn—plus, her contemporaries didn’t mention any of these physical traits in their own writings about the queen. At worst, she might have had a second nail on one finger—which is a far cry from saying she possessed an extra digit.

  1. Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, ruled England for decades.

Coronated at age 25 on January 15, 1559, Queen Elizabeth I defeated the Spanish Armada, promoted exploration, and foiled multiple assassination plots during her 44-year reign. She held the throne right up until her death in 1603.

  1. There’s only one surviving portrait of Anne Boleyn (that we know of).

When Henry VIII executed her, most Anne Boleyn likenesses were intentionally destroyed—and now, there's just one contemporary image of the queen known to exist: a lead disc—crafted in 1534—with Boleyn’s face etched on one side, which is held at the British Museum in London. It’s the only verified portrait of the former queen that was actually produced during her lifetime.

But there may be at least one more image of the queen out there: In 2015, facial recognition software was used to compare the image on the disc to a 16th-century painting currently housed at the Bradford Art Galleries and Museums. The picture’s subject, a young woman, has never been identified, but according to the program, the figure looks an awful lot like Boleyn’s portrait in that lead disc—though the researchers cautioned that their results were inconclusive due to insufficient data.

6 Strange Maritime Mysteries

Neville Mountford-Hoare/iStock via Getty Images
Neville Mountford-Hoare/iStock via Getty Images

The oceans cover over 70 percent of our planet, so it's little wonder that their seemingly impenetrable depths have provided a series of fascinating mysteries, from missing ships to eerie monsters. Below are six mysteries of the deep—some of which scientists think they've at least partly explained, while others remain truly puzzling.

  1. The Mary Celeste

On December 5, 1872, the crew of the British ship the Dei Gratia spotted a vessel bobbing about 400 miles off the coast of the Azores. They approached the Mary Celeste to offer help, but after boarding the ship were shocked to find it completely unmanned. The crew had disappeared without a trace, their belongings still stowed in their quarters, six months' worth of food and drink untouched, and the valuable cargo of industrial alcohol still mostly in place. The only clues were three and a half feet of water in the hold, a missing lifeboat, and a dismantled pump. It was the beginning of an enduring mystery concerning what happened to the crew, and why they abandoned a seemingly sea-worthy vessel.

Numerous theories have been suggested, including by crime writer Arthur Conan Doyle, who penned a short story in 1884 suggesting the crew had fallen victim to an ex-slave intent on revenge. A more recent theory has pointed the finger at rough seas and the broken pump, arguing they forced the captain to issue an order to abandon ship. Since the missing crew have never been traced, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a satisfying answer to the enigma.

  1. The Yonaguni Monument

An underwater area known as the Twin Megaliths at the Yonaguni Monument
An area known as the Twin Megaliths at the Yonaguni Monument
Vincent Lou, Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

In 1986, a diver looking for a good spot to watch hammerhead sharks off the coast of the Ryukyu Islands in Japan came across an extraordinary underwater landscape. The area reportedly looked like an ancient submerged village, with steps, holes, and triangles seemingly carved into the rocks. Ever since it was first discovered, controversy has surrounded the site that's become known as the Yonaguni Monument, with some researchers—such as marine geologist Masaaki Kimura—arguing it is a clearly manmade environment, perhaps a city thousands of years old and sunk in one of the earthquakes that plagues the region. Others believe it's a natural geological phenomenon reflecting the stratigraphy (layers) of sandstone in an area with tectonic activity. The area is open to scuba divers, so the really curious can strap on air tanks and decide for themselves.

  1. The Bermuda Triangle

The Bermuda Triangle has probably spawned more wild theories, column inches, and online discussion than any other ocean mystery—more than 50 ships and 20 aircraft are said to have vanished there. Although the triangle has never officially been defined, by some accounts it covers at least 500,000 square miles and lies between Bermuda, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

The mystery first caught the public imagination in December 1945 when Flight 19, consisting of five U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo bombers and their 14 crewmembers, were lost without a trace during a routine training operation in the area. Interest was further piqued when it was later reported that one of the search-and-rescue planes dispatched to find the missing team had also disappeared. Articles and books such as Charles Berlitz’s The Bermuda Triangle, first published in 1974 and having since sold over 20 million copies in 30 languages, have served to keep the mystery alive, providing potential theories both natural and supernatural. Scientists—and world-renowned insurers Lloyd’s of London—have attempted to debunk the myth of the Bermuda Triangle, offering evidence that the rate of disappearance in the vast and busy triangle is no higher than other comparable shipping lanes, but such is the power of a good story that this is one story that seems likely to continue to fascinate.

  1. The Kraken

A model of a giant squid on display at the Natural History Museum in London in 1907
A model of a giant squid on display at the Natural History Museum in London in 1907
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

For hundreds of years, sailors told tales of an enormous sea creature with huge tentacles known as the Kraken. Stories around the mythical kraken first started appearing in Scandinavia in the 12th century, and in 1555 Swedish cartographer Olaus Magnus provided an account of a sea creature with “sharp and long Horns round about, like a Tree root up by the Roots: They are ten or twelve cubits long, very black, and with huge eyes.” The stories persisted, often mentioning a creature so large it resembled an island. In his 1755 book The Natural History of Norway, Danish historian Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan described the kraken as “incontestably the largest Sea monster in the world."

Scientists have proposed that these stories might derive from sightings of giant squid (Architeuthis dux), although evidence for an even larger, yet extremely elusive, colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) has also come to light. The colossal squid is found in the deepest part of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, and is thought to be up to 46 feet long and 1100 pounds. The problem is that the animal is so rare very few specimens have been found intact, and no live specimen has ever been observed, which means that estimating its exact size is difficult. Researchers have also noticed that sperm whales have been observed with large scars, and have suggested that these could be the result of violent encounters with the colossal squid, which is known to have sharp rotating hooks on the ends of their tentacles.

  1. The Treasure of the Merchant Royal

The remains of the Merchant Royal are known as one of the richest shipwrecks ever. The ship set sail from the New World in 1641 laden with 100,000 pounds of gold, 400 Mexican silver bars, and thousands of precious gems—in total, a haul thought to be worth $1.3 billion today. The ship got caught in a storm and was thought to have gone down somewhere off the coast of Cornwall, England. The lost wreck became known as the “el Dorado of the seas” due to the enormous value of its cargo, and over the years numerous treasure hunters have searched fruitlessly for its final resting place, which remains undiscovered. In 2019 fishermen snagged what is thought to be the anchor from the Merchant Royal, but to date the dangerous conditions and extreme depths at which the wreck is thought to lie have meant it has remained unclaimed.

  1. Attack of the Sea Foam

In December 2011, residents of Cleveleys, England, awoke to what appeared to be a soft blanket of snow. But as locals ventured out into the streets it soon became clear that this was no snowstorm, but instead something far more puzzling. Trees, cars, roads, and houses were all wrapped in a thick, white layer of foam. The Environment Agency were quickly deployed to take samples of the sea foam, since residents were understandably concerned as to the origin of the strange, gloopy substance, fearing it might be caused by pollutants.

The dramatic images of the foam-soaked town soon had journalists flocking to the region to investigate the phenomena, but as quickly as it appeared the foam disappeared, leaving behind only a salty residue. Scientists analyzing the foam confirmed it was not caused by detergents, and instead suspected that it was caused by a rare combination of decomposing algae out at sea and strong winds, which whipped up the viscous foam and blew it into land. The phenomena has apparently occurred at other times before and since, and researchers are now working to try and understand the exceptional conditions that cause it to form so that residents can be warned when another thick blanket is set to descend.

Bonus: The Bloop—Mystery Solved

Over the years, the oceans have produced a number of eerie and often unexplained sounds. In 1997, researchers from NOAA listening for underwater volcanic activity using hydrophones (underwater microphones) noticed an extremely loud, powerful series of noises in the Pacific Ocean. The unusual din excited researchers, who soon named it “The Bloop” in reference to its unique sound.

Theories abounded as to the origin of the bloop—secret military facility, reverberations from a ship’s engine, or an enormous sea creature. The most fanciful suggestion stem from H. P. Lovecraft fans who noticed that the noise came from an area off South America where the sci-fi writer’s fictional sunken city of R’lyeh was supposed to be. They proposed that the bloop might have originated from Lovecraft’s “dead but dreaming” sea creature, Cthulhu. In 2005, however, scientists found that the mysterious sound was in fact the noise made by an icequake—or an iceberg shearing off from a glacier.

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