9 Terrifying Medical Treatments from 1900 and Their Safer Modern Versions


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.

Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
How Accurate are Hollywood Medical Dramas? A Doctor Breaks It Down
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images

Medical dramas like Grey's Anatomy get a lot of things wrong when it comes to the procedures shown on the screen, but unless you're a doctor, you'd probably never notice.

For its latest installment, WIRED's Technique Critique video series—which previously blessed us with a dialect coach's critique of actors' onscreen accents—tackled the accuracy of medical scenes in movies and TV, bringing in Annie Onishi, a general surgery resident at Columbia University, to comment on emergency room and operating scenes from Pulp Fiction, House, Scrubs, and more.

While Onishi breaks down just how inaccurate these shows and movies can be, she makes it clear that Hollywood doesn't always get it wrong. Some shows, including Showtime's historical drama The Knick, garner praise from Onishi for being true-to-life with their medical jargon and operations. And when doctors discuss what music to play during surgery on Scrubs? That's "a tale as old as time in the O.R.," according to Onishi.

Other tropes are very obviously ridiculous, like slapping a patient during CPR and telling them to fight, which we see in a scene from The Abyss. "Rule number one of CPR is: never stop effective chest compressions in order to slap or yell words of encouragement at the patient," Onishi says. "Yelling at a patient or cheering them on has never brought them back to life." And obviously, taking selfies in the operating room in the middle of a grisly operation like the doctors on Grey's Anatomy do would get you fired in real life.

There are plenty of cliché words and phrases we hear over and over on doctor shows, and some are more accurate than others. Asking about a patient's vitals is authentic, according to Onishi, who says it's something doctors are always concerned with. However, yelling "We're losing him!" is simply for added TV drama. "I have never once heard that in my real life," Onishi says.

[h/t WIRED]

Farrin Abbott, SLAC/Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
An Ancient Book Blasted with High-Powered X-Rays Reveals Text Erased Centuries Ago
Farrin Abbott, SLAC/Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Farrin Abbott, SLAC/Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A book of 10th-century psalms recovered from St. Catherine’s Monastery on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula is an impressive artifact in itself. But the scientists studying this text at the U.S. Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University were less interested in the surface text than in what was hidden beneath it. As Gizmodo reports, the researchers were able to identify the remains of an ancient Greek medical text on the parchment using high-powered x-rays.

Unlike the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) used by the scientists is a much simpler and more common type of particle accelerator. In the SSRL, electrons accelerate to just below the speed of light while tracing a many-sided polygon. Using magnets to manipulate the electrons' path, the researchers can produce x-ray beams powerful enough to reveal the hidden histories of ancient documents.

Scanning an ancient text.
Mike Toth, R.B. Toth Associates, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the case of the 10th-century psalms, the team discovered that the same pages had held an entirely different text written five centuries earlier. The writing was a transcription of the words of the prominent Greek physician Galen, who lived from 130 CE to around 210 CE. His words were recorded on the pages in the ancient Syriac language by an unknown writer a few hundred years after Galen's death.

Several centuries after those words were transcribed, the ink was scraped off by someone else to make room for the psalms. The original text is no longer visible to the naked eye, but by blasting the parchment with x-rays, the scientists can see where the older writing had once marked the page. You can see it below—it's the writing in green.

X-ray scan of ancient text.
University of Manchester, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Now that the researchers know the hidden text is there, their next step will be uncovering as many words as possible. They plan to do this by scanning the book in its entirety, a process that will take 10 hours for each of the 26 pages. Once they've been scanned and studied, the digital files will be shared online.

Particle accelerators are just one tool scientists use to decipher messages that were erased centuries ago. Recently, conservationists at the Library of Congress used multispectral imaging, a method that bounces different wavelengths of light off a page, to reveal the pigments of an old Alexander Hamilton letter someone had scrubbed out.

[h/t Gizmodo]


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