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9 Terrifying Medical Treatments from 1900 and Their Safer Modern Versions

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The next time you have to endure a boring stay in a doctor’s waiting room, be thankful you don’t live in the early 20th century. Even as medicine was rapidly improving, these downright scary or dangerous treatments were still lingering.

1. Radium Water

Before radioactivity was fully understood, naturally occurring radium was lauded for its seemingly otherworldly benefits. Water was kept in radium-laced buckets, and people would drink the tainted liquid to cure everything from arthritis to impotence. Of course, this was an awful idea, and when people started to drop dead from this miracle water, the connection was made. Now, non-radioactive prescription drugs are used to combat arthritis and impotence.

2. Ecraseur

This obsolete tool had a chain loop that the doctor would tighten around a cyst or hemorrhoid. This constriction would rob the area of blood flow, which would cause the offending lump to fall off. In modern medical offices, creams are used to ease hemorrhoids away, while more delicate surgery is most often used to remove cysts.

3. Plombage

Plombage was a risky early 20th century treatment for tuberculosis in which a surgeon would create a cavity in a patient’s lower lung and fill it with a foreign material such as lucite balls. This procedure would make the upper, infected lung collapse. The theory maintained that a collapsed lung would eventually heal itself. Thanks to modern vaccines, TB has been largely eradicated throughout much of the developed world, although it is far from completely eliminated globally.

4. Peg Legs

Before the advent of advanced prosthetics, wooden pegs had to be jammed into the hollowed-out cavities of an amputee’s leg or strapped to the patient’s waist. The device would be shaped and carved to the correct height, and occasionally the fit was perfect. Some recipients of the procedure were able to walk for miles without noticing discomfort. Still, they were no match for modern prostheses.

5. Gasoline to Cure Lice

In the early 20th century, a patient with a bad case of head lice would douse his or her dome with gasoline or kerosene in an effort to rid their scalp of the unwanted guests. While this treatment may have been somewhat effective, it was also incredibly dangerous to anyone who walked near an open flame. Modern medicine can solve the infestation much more safely with medicated shampoo.

6. Morphine for Teething

Any parent can understand the necessity of soothing a teething baby’s pain, but even into the 20th century some moms and dads were taking incredibly risky or downright dangerous steps to help their tots. In addition to lancing (cutting the gums to give the new teeth a clear pathway to emerge), parents gave children morphine syrups to ease their crying and dusted their gums with powders that contained deadly mercury. Modern parents are luckier and can use non-toxic pain relievers or chilled teething toys.

7. Mercury for Syphilis

For most of history, a syphilis diagnosis was incredibly grim news, and at the turn of the 20th century, most doctors’ best treatment involved administering toxic mercury to the patient indefinitely, giving rise to a popular quip about lovers spending “one night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.” Even as medical knowledge improved in the early 1900s, treatments still involved dire measures like taking arsenic or deliberately inoculating the patient with malaria, which would raise the body temperature and kill the syphilis. Thankfully, these scary treatments all went out the window with the introduction of penicillin in 1943.

8. Starvation Diets for Aneurysms

Doctors sought to treat early 20th century aneurysms by diminishing the force with which the heart pumped. One of the questionable regimens used to achieve this goal was known as Tuffnell’s diet, which consisted of bed rest and meager, dry rations. A 1901 medical text spelled out the treatment’s daily menus: Two ounces of bread and butter with two ounces of milk for breakfast, three ounces of meat and four ounces of milk or red wine for lunch, and two ounces of bread with two ounces of milk for dinner. Today many cases can be treated with minimally invasive surgeries.

9. Hydroelectric Baths for Migraines

Taking the toaster into the bathtub may be fatal today, but for several decades starting in the late 19th century, some doctors recommended treating chronic migraines by lounging in a hydroelectric bath – a warm tub with a small current passing through the water. Doctors eventually became skeptical of this method, and today’s migraine sufferers can turn to more effective pharmaceutical treatments.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, and starring Clive Owen, The Knick features groundbreaking surgeons, nurses and staff who push the boundaries of medicine in a time of astonishingly high mortality rates and zero antibiotics. The Knick premieres tomorrow at 10pm/9c only on Cinemax. #AtTheKnick See more at AtTheKnick.tumblr.com

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9 Unfamiliar Things You’d See in a Hospital in 1900
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Hospital technology has come a long way since the beginning of the 20th century – these former staples of every ward and operating room have all but disappeared.

1. Street Clothes in Operating Rooms

By 1900, doctors understood that cleanliness in operating rooms was an important part of curbing infection and transmission of germs. Unfortunately for patients, they hadn’t quite mastered the art of creating sterile surgical environments. Surgeons performed procedures in their street shoes and clothes topped little more than a butcher’s apron – not to protect the patient, but to keep their threads from getting too bloody.

2. Open Operating Theaters

The surgical team wasn’t alone in tracking contaminants into the operating room. Unlike the scrupulously sterilized modern operating rooms, in the 19th and early 20th centuries many procedures took place in large, open-air operating theaters filled with no barrier between the patient and spectators in street clothes. Since early electric lights didn’t always give off enough light for surgery, these operating theaters often included large windows to let in extra sunlight.

3. Bare Hands and Faces

Although rubber gloves had been invented in the 19th century, their use hadn’t really taken off in 1900. Surgeons would give their hands a thorough pre-procedure scrubbing, then get to work with bare hands. Similarly, the surgical face masks that are a common sight today were still decades away from widespread use.

4. Hand-Cranked Suction

If a surgeon needs a clear blood-free look at the area on which an operation is being performed, he or she can use suction to remove blood from the area. In modern operations, this task is performed by electrically powered vacuum systems, but in 1900 it required elbow grease – one member of the operating team furiously cranked a mechanical suction pump to give the surgeon a clearer view.

5. Inhaled Anesthesia

Being put under for surgery is pretty straightforward for most modern patients – a dose of drugs is administered via IV, and the patient drifts off. In 1900, things weren’t so easy. Inhaled ether was the anesthetic of choice in the early 20th century, and while it did the trick, it soon fell out of favor as more versatile, less flammable intravenous options emerged.

6. Nurses Wearing Caps

Until the 1980s, a small white cap perched atop the head was a part of nursing’s standard uniform. The cap wasn’t just decorative. It kept long hair out of the nurse's way and offered patients a visual cue that the person giving them care was a qualified nurse. However, as nurses transitioned to wearing scrubs rather than formal white uniforms, their signature caps fell by the wayside.

7. Involuntarily Committed Tuberculosis Patients

As tuberculosis tore through New York City during the late 19th century, in 1893 public health officials began an aggressive campaign to curb the spread of the disease. In addition to educating patients on how to prevent further infections, officials could forcibly remove infectious patients from their homes and confine them to hospitals. Although the measure sounds extreme, it worked.

8. Boiling Water Sterilizers

In an early 20th century operating room, you could have spied surgical implements sitting in a pot of boiling water to sterilize them. While this technique was somewhat effective at killing off germs, simple boiling in water can allow some spores to survive. Today, hospitals use a combination of steam and pressure in an autoclave to more thoroughly disinfect implements.

9. Stables

The motorized ambulance made its debut in 1899 when a Chicago hospital adopted an electric version, and the breakthrough found its way to New York City the following year, but the vast majority of emergency patients in 1900 made their way to the hospital in horse-drawn ambulances. Major hospitals had their own specialized stables in which horses’ harnesses dangled from the ceilings. When an emergency call came in, drivers dropped the quick-rigging harnesses onto their team in just seconds and took off for the scene.

Even as automobiles gained in popularity, horse-drawn ambulances persisted. Some of New York’s biggest hospitals were still using them as late as 1923. Public health officials were delighted with the development since it spared them both the hassle of operating stables and the unsanitary conditions that came with quartering livestock in close proximity to patients.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, and starring Clive Owen, The Knick features groundbreaking surgeons, nurses and staff who push the boundaries of medicine in a time of astonishingly high mortality rates and zero antibiotics. The Knick returns Friday at 10pm/9c only on Cinemax. #AtTheKnick See more at AtTheKnick.tumblr.com

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6 Medical Theories From 1900 That Didn't Pan Out
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The early years of the 20th century were a crucial time in the history of medicine, as breakthroughs in surgical techniques, sanitation, and scientific rigor helped doctors become far more effective at saving and improving lives. Not every theory these pioneers had panned out, though. Here are six that missed the mark.

1. Bicycles Distort Women’s Faces

Throughout the 1890s an increasing number of women began riding bicycles, which gave them the freedom to travel and explore under their own power. Some members of the male medical establishment felt threatened by these women’s newfound independence and began warning of “bicycle face,” a permanent distortion of the features brought on by the strain of bike riding. These quacks’ ominous pronouncements appeared in medical journals and mainstream newspapers alike throughout the late 1890s before giving way in the early 20th century to the related non-illnesses “automobile face” and, in 1908, “aeroplane face.”

2. Electrified Jockstraps Can Cure Erectile Dysfunction 

Women weren’t alone in being targeted by questionable science. In the early 20th century, some of the country’s largest mail-order catalogues offered men the chance to cure everything from kidney disease to impotence to back issues by wearing an “electric belt,” which was basically an expensive jockstrap wired to give wearers small electrical shocks. While they might have sold well, these devices certainly didn’t solve any of the conditions they claimed to cure.

3. Heroin Is a Great Tool for Kicking Your Drug Habit 

When heroin first appeared on pharmacists’ shelves in 1898, doctors hailed it as a miracle drug. Heroin acted as both an effective cough suppressant and a less addictive painkilling alternative to morphine. At the time, morphine addiction was an international crisis, and doctors were willing to try any solution to wean addicts off of the drug. (Over a decade earlier, Sigmund Freud had dabbled in using cocaine to treat morphine addiction before realizing it was a disastrous idea.)

Heroin initially seemed like such a promising solution that one charitable society even proposed mailing morphine addicts free doses of heroin as a crutch on their road to sobriety. However, the truth soon emerged, and by 1902 doctors worried that the new wonder drug was just as addictive as morphine. By 1919, it was illegal to prescribe heroin to morphine addicts.

4. Tainted Meat Causes Scurvy

Scurvy has long been a plague of sailors and soldiers who had no ready supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. Although doctors have known that scurvy can be treated with fresh fruit for centuries, they weren’t certain what actually caused the disease or why fresh fruit was an effective remedy. One prominent theory was that tainted meat – which often found its way into soldiers' and sailors’ diets as they ventured away from supplies of fresh produce – caused scurvy. It wasn’t until British researcher Frederick Hopkins discovered vitamins in 1906 that scientists learned diseases like scurvy were caused not by the presence of germs, but by the absence of the crucial vitamin C.

5. Pregnant Women Pass Their Emotions to Their Babies

Until the early 20th century, some doctors mistakenly believed that if a pregnant mother experienced a great shock, period of sadness, or other strong emotion, her child would be born with inherited personality traits like nervousness or depression.

More extreme versions of this theory of “maternal impression” stretched to the baby’s physical characteristics – a mother who saw a man lose his right hand in an accident would give birth to a baby with no right hand. (That example appears in a pediatrics journal from 1900.) As doctors improved their understanding of genetics in the first decade of the 20th century, the theory of maternal impression became less prevalent.

6. X-Rays Are Great For Your Skin

German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895, and it didn’t take long for doctors to find uses for this incredible radiation. By 1900 specialists were using X-rays for tasks like removing female patients’ unwanted hair and treating their acne. While the X-rays were certainly effective at cosmetic hair removal, the risks associated with these doses of radiation far outweighed their aesthetic benefits. Despite the popularity of X-rays for acne treatment, the practice’s efficacy was never clearly demonstrated, and by the second half of the 20th century doctors abandoned the risky path.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, and starring Clive Owen, The Knick features groundbreaking surgeons, nurses and staff who push the boundaries of medicine in a time of astonishingly high mortality rates and zero antibiotics. The Knick returns Friday at 10pm/9c only on Cinemax. #AtTheKnick See more at AtTheKnick.tumblr.com

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