11 Unbelievable Moments from Cocaine’s Early Medical History

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In 1900, cocaine wasn’t just a drug – it was the drug that could cure anything that ailed a patient. Here’s how it came to be Americans’ medicine of choice in the first decade of the 20th century.

1. The Eyes Have It

Although cocaine would later be prescribed for scores of dubious reasons, its initial medical use was legitimate. In 1884 Austrian ophthalmologist Carl Koller discovered that placing a few drops of a cocaine solution on a patient’s cornea rendered the eye temporarily immobile and insensitive to pain. Eye surgery, which had previously been extremely difficult due to the eye’s involuntary movements, was suddenly much less risky.

2. On the Nose

News of Koller’s discovery quickly spread throughout the medical world. Doctors quickly realized that cocaine was useful for numbing more than just eyes – it could be used as an anesthetic for procedures on the throat and nose as well. While it sounds crazy now, these extensions were actually medically sound – cocaine is still used as an anesthetic in some sinus procedures.

3. Topping the Charts

Cocaine may have been used as a medicine, but it wasn’t regulated like one. Skeptics worried about the wonder drug’s addictiveness as it spread in popularity, but some of the brightest medical minds scoffed at any concerns – in the 1880s famed neurologist and former Surgeon General William A. Hammond claimed that cocaine habits were no different than tea or coffee habits and that patients could quit cold turkey. By 1900, Americans could walk into any pharmacy and purchase a gram of pure cocaine for 25 cents. Cocaine was one of the country’s five best-selling pharmaceuticals that year.

4. Creative Packaging

At the turn of the 20th century, cocaine was being mixed into everything from soft drinks to wines to medicinal tonics. Some pharmaceutical companies even sold cocaine-laced cigars as a pick-me-up for smokers. Large mail-order companies offered pocket-sized kits that included a hypodermic needle so patients could give themselves cocaine injections.

5. Cheers to Cocaine

Cocaine fans weren’t just injecting and smoking cocaine. Many of the era’s top minds were devotees of Vin Mariani, a patent medicine consisting of Bordeaux wine and coca leaves. A single fluid ounce of the concoction packed six milligrams of cocaine, and it soon became a popular over-the-counter cure for anyone who needed a boost. Some of the era’s biggest names bought into these medicinal effects, including Thomas Edison, Jules Verne, and the McKinley White House.

6. The Best Medicine

Cocaine was more than just a topical anesthetic and stimulant in 1900. It was hawked as a cure for nearly anything. A Connecticut pharmacy’s 1905 newspaper ad boasted, “Coca wine will make a new man or woman of you. Invigorates and stimulates the brain, muscles, nerves, stomach, and heart.” Among the additional diagnoses it was prescribed for: hemorrhoids, indigestion, appetite suppression and fatigue.

7. A Kick in the Teeth

Nothing’s worse than having a toothache, but desperate dental patients of the early 20th century had a magic bullet: cocaine-laden toothache drops. The drops were effective on two fronts. Cocaine’s anesthetic effects soothed the sufferer’s pain as the drug stimulated them into better moods.

8. For the Kids

Cocaine cures weren’t exclusively for adults. Cocaine toothache drops were marketed to children, and coca wines came packaged with dosing instructions for children. In addition to its anesthetic properties, cocaine was hailed as a cure for shyness in children!

9. Singing Cocaine’s Praises

Even without a toothache, patients could take cocaine lozenges as the cure for all manner of oral ailments. In 1900 a Belgian pharmacy marketed cocaine throat drops as “indispensable for singers, teachers, and orators.”

10. Making It Official

Hay fever sufferers loved the therapeutic effects of cocaine so much that in 1884 the United States Hay Fever Association honored the drug as its official remedy. Throughout the early 20th century allergists kept recommending the use of cocaine to ward off hay fever.

11. Doctors Need a Fix

With cocaine so readily available at cheap prices, Americans began getting addicted at an alarming rate. By 1902, upwards of 200,000 Americans were cocaine addicts. A disproportionate number of these addicts were doctors, dentists, and pharmacists – who faced a disastrous combination of stressful, high-stakes work and easy access to piles of cocaine. As the number of addicts swelled to epidemic levels, states and local governments began to crack down on unregulated cocaine use.

Can You Guess How These Diseases Were Treated in the 1700s?

17 Bizarre Natural Remedies From the 1700s

In the late 1740s, John Wesley—a British evangelist and the co-founder of Methodism—published Primitive Physick, or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases. The tome gave regular people ways to cure themselves with natural remedies, using items they could find in their own homes.

When in doubt, Welsey thought that drinking cold water or taking cold baths could cure most illnesses (including breast cancer); some of his suggestions, like using chamomile tea to soothe an upset stomach, have survived today. Other natural remedies he whipped up, though, are decidedly strange. Here are a few of them.

1. To Cure An Ague

Wesley describes an ague as “an intermitting fever, each fit of which is preceded by a cold shivering and goes off in a sweat.” There are many natural remedies for curing it, but all must be preceded by taking a “gentle vomit,” which, if taken two hours before the fit, Wesley says will generally prevent it, and may even cure the ague. If the vomiting fails, however, Wesley suggests wearing a bag of groundsel, a weed, “on the pit of the stomach, renewing it two hours before the fit.” The weed should be shredded small, and the side of the bag facing the skin should have holes in it.

Should this not work, Wesley suggests a remedy that requires a stronger stomach: “Make six middling pills of cobwebs, take one a little before the cold fit: Two a little before the next fit: The other three, if Need be, a little before the third fit. I never knew this fail.”

2. To Cure a Canine Appetite

Wesley turns to a Dr. Scomberg for the cure to this condition, which is defined by Wesley as “an insatiable desire of eating”: If there’s no vomiting, canine appetite “is often cured by a small Bit of Bread dipt in Wine, and applied to the Nostrils."

3. To Cure Asthma

Tar water, sea water, nettle juice, and quicksilver are all acceptable cures for what Wesley calls "moist Asthma" (which is characterized by “a difficulty of breathing … the patient spits much”). But a method that “seldom fails,” Wesley says, is living “a fortnight on boiled carrots only.”

Dry and convulsive asthma, meanwhile, can be treated with toad, dried and powdered. “Make it into small pills,” Wesley writes, “and take one every hour until the convulsions fade.”

4. To Prevent or Cure Nose Bleeds

Drinking whey and eating raisins every day, Wesley says, can help prevent nose bleeds. Other methods for preventing or curing the phenomenon include “hold[ing] a red hot poker under the nose” and “steep[ing] a linnen rag in sharp vinegar, burn[ing] it, and blow[ing] it up the nose with a Quill.”

5. To Cure a “Cold in the Head”

Getting rid of this common ailment is easy, according to Wesley: Just “pare very thin the yellow rind of an orange," he writes. "Roll it up inside out, and thrust a roll inside each nostril.”

6. To Cure “An Habitual Colick”

Today's doctors define colic as a condition suffered by "a healthy, well-fed infant who cries for more than three hours per day, for more than three days per week, for more than three weeks." But adults can get it, too; it's characterized by severe stomach pains and spasms (which, we now know, can be an indication of other conditions, like Crohn's disease and irritable bowel syndrome). To cure it, Wesley suggests this odd remedy: “Wear a thin soft Flannel on the part.”

6. To Cure “White Specks in the Eye”

While it's unclear exactly what "white specks in the eye" actually is—eye floaters, maybe—Wesley suggests that, when “going to bed, put a little ear-wax on the Speck.—This has cured many.”

7. To Cure the Falling Sickness

Those who suffer from this illness “fall to the ground, either quite stiff, or convulsed all over, utterly senseless, gnashing his teeth, and foaming at the mouth.” To cure the condition, Wesley recommends “an entire milk diet for three months: It rarely fails.” During fits, though, “blow up the nose a little powder’d ginger.”

8. To Cure Gout

“Regard not them who say the gout ought not to be cured. They mean, it cannot,” Wesley writes. (They, here, might be referring to regular practitioners of medicine.) “I know it cannot by their regular prescriptions. But I have known it cured in many cases, without any ill effect following.” Gout in the foot or hand can be cured by “apply[ing] a raw lean beef-steak. Change it once in 12 hours, ‘till cured.”

Curing the gout in any limb can be accomplished by beginning this ritual at six in the evening: “Undress and wrap yourself up in Blankets. — Then put your Legs up to the Knees in Water, as hot as you can bear it. As it cools, let hot Water be poured in, so as to keep you in a strong Sweat till ten. Then go into a Bed well warm'd and sweat till Morning. — I have known this to cure an inveterate Gout.”

9. To Cure Jaundice

Wesley suggests curing jaundice—which turns the skin and whites of the eyes yellow (thanks to too much bilirubin in the blood, we now know)—by wearing "leaves of Celandine upon and under the feet." Other possible cures include taking a small pill of Castile soap in the morning for eight to 10 days, or "as much lies on a shilling of calcin’d egg-shells, three mornings fasting; and walk till you sweat.”

10. To Cure “The Iliac Passion”

This decidedly unpleasant condition—which Wesley defines as a “violent kind of Colic ... the Excrements are thrown up by the mouth in vomiting,” eww—has a few cures, including “apply[ing] warm Flannel soaked in Spirits of Wine.” Most delightful, however, is the cure recommended by a Dr. Sydenham: “Hold a live Puppy constantly on the Belly.”

11. To Cure “the Palpitation or Beating of the Heart”

Among the remedies for this ailment are the mundane “drink a Pint of cold Water,” the stinky-but-probably-not-effective “apply outwardly a Rag dipt In vinegar,” and the very exciting “be electrified” (which is suggested for a few other illnesses as well).

12. To Cure Pleurisy

This illness is characterized by “a Fever attended with a violent pain in the Side, and a Pulse remarkably hard.” (It's caused, we now know, when the double membrane that surrounds the lungs inside the chest cavity becomes inflamed.) Wesley’s first suggested remedy involves applying “to the Side Onions roasted in the Embers, mixt with Cream." Next up is filling the core of an apple with frankincense “stop[ping] it close with the Piece you cut out and roast[ing] it in Ashes. Mash and eat it.” Sounds delicious!

13. To cure Quinsy

“A quinsy,” Wesley explains, “is a Fever attended with Difficulty of Swallowing, and often Breathing.” (Today, the condition is called peritonsillar abscess and it's known to be a complication of tonsillitis.) He suggests applying “a large White-bread Toast, half an Inch thick, dipt in Brandy, to the crown of the Head till it dries.”

14. To Cure “A Windy Rupture”

Wesley doesn't say what, exactly, this condition is, though a Google search brings up the term hernia ventosa, which another medical book of the same time defines as a "false hernia ... where the wind is pent up by the coats of the Testes, inflating and blowing up the inguen," or the groin area. Wesley prescribes the following method to cure it: “Warm Cow-dung well. Spread it thick on Leather, [throwing] some cummin seeds on it, and apply it hot. When cold, put on a new one.” This, he says, “commonly cures a Child (keeping his Bed) in two Days.”

15. To Cure a "Tooth-ach"

Wesley suggests being electrified through the tooth. If that’s too extreme for you, try “rub[bing] the Cheek a Quarter of an Hour ... Or, put[ting] a Clove of Garlick into the Ear.”

16. To Stop Vomiting

Induced vomiting was an important part of Wesley's medical theories (remember the "gentle vomit" that could stop the ague?). But if a patient was vomiting and it wasn't a part of the prescribed method for curing him, Wesley advised "after every Vomiting, drink a pint of warm water; or, apply a large onion slit, to the Pit of the Stomach."

17. To Heal a Cut

Wesley suggests holding the cut closed "with your thumb for a quarter of an hour" (what we might call applying pressure these days), then dipping a rag in cold water and wrapping the cut in it. Another method: "Bind on toasted cheese," Wesley writes. "This will cure a deep cut." Pounded grass, applied fresh every 12 hours, will also do the trick.

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