7 Most Ridiculous Treatment Techniques in History

7 most ridiculous treatment techniques in history

“We are constantly throwing science at a wall, to see what sticks”

     Cave Johnson

I learnt a new word today; backasswards – this is the best way to describe the unusual treatment techniques that were initially used to treat illnesses ranging from simple ones like a cough to more sophisticated ones like neuropsychiatric conditions. Punctuated by recipes of regret here and there, the journey to the development of new treatment regimens that the modern world takes pride in has been everything but boring.  If nothing else, this article will remind you how far we have come. Now for the meat!

  1. Pyrotherapy

In this procedure, patients with syphilis were deliberately exposed to malarial infection in the sense that they would develop a fever that would “fry off” Treponema pallidum, the bacteria that causes syphilis. Simply put, it was akin to trading a neurodegenerative illness for a slightly less-horrific disease with slightly more chances of cure. The sophistication in this method lay in the administration of effective anti-malarial drugs to control Plasmodium, while maintaining a high fever to cause damage to the heat-sensitive Treponema pallidum. Let’s take our hats off to Alexander Fleming for discovering Penicillin, which is now the drug of choice when treating Syphilis.

  1. The wandering womb

In all their wisdom, the ancient Greek practitioners attributed conditions such as suffocation, seizures and hysteria as having been caused by a wandering womb. You see, they believed that the womb was a separate living creature that could not only bear children but could also walk about and glide freely around the body. If it travelled upwards, its victim would exhibit vertigo, sluggishness and reduced strength. If it descended, loss of speech, a strong sense of suffocation and sometimes sudden death would occur. How men could exhibit similar symptoms without owning a womb remained a problematic question to those supporting the theory. To hold their wombs in place, women were advised to keep their uteri busy by marrying young and bearing many children.

Other procedures included fumigating the victim’s head with foul-smelling compounds like ammonia while simultaneously rubbing fragrant lotions on the thighs- the logic being because the womb averts fetid smells and delights in pleasant ones, it will advance downwards and in the process rest in its rightful position. Luckily, the veil of medical ignorance is slowly being lifted off.  In the modern world, you will have smoked some dust to support such a made-up theory.

  1. Trepanations

Aimed at treating various ailments such as extreme pain and head injuries, this medical procedure involved drilling holes into the obelion, the point on a skull where a high ponytail can be formed. The obelion is found just above the superior sagittal sinus, an area where blood collects before flowing to the main veins outgoing from the brain. Pain was not the only problem with this method. Drilling a hole at this location can cause severe haemorrhage and death. Surprisingly, many people survived the surgery. Their memory loss was however so extreme that if they remembered one hour of anything prior to the surgery, that would be too much. Today, craniotomy, the drilling of holes into the skull, is performed under general anaesthesia/sedation when a surgeon needs to access a part of the brain during the removal of brain tumours/ lesions.

  1. Radium water

While most energy drinks today contain caffeine, a stimulant that is not harmful to the body, it is hard to believe that energy drinks sold in the 1900s contained real energy- Radium. William Bailey, a self-proclaimed doctor, discovered that taking small doses of radium thrice a day could cure headaches, diabetes, asthma, constipation and anemia. He promoted RadiThor, Radium dissolved in water, as an aphrodisiac and metabolic stimulant. Although there is a tenuous relationship between consuming a solution of radioactive material and feeling a burst of energy within oneself, many of Bailey’s clients still testified that the drink gave them super-human vigour and ignored the health consequences of their actions. Soon, they experienced extreme weight loss that could not be accounted for, their teeth began to fall out and they started getting severe migraines.

Worth noting is the fact that ingested radioactive material accumulates in bone material thus victims also suffer from bone-related malignancies such as holes in their skulls.  

  1. Hemiglossectomy

Some surgeons in the 18th and 19th centuries cut incisions around the root of the tongue in the wisdom that this would stop spasms occurring around the vocal cords. By removing part of the tongue, the approach was aimed at correcting speech problems in patients who stutter. Unsurprisingly, the method was hardly a success and most patients bled to death. How easy it is to be wrong! In the modern world, we are familiar with hemiglossectomy as a surgical procedure done under general anaesthesia to remove some forms of oral cancer. Current treatment regimens for stuttering patients involve electric shock and hypnosis.

  1. Farts in a jar

When the pandemic of the Black Death broke out, medical practitioners became desperate to find a cure that could stop the plague. Because Black Death was thought to have been caused by deadly vapours, one of their most desperate measures was the use of “therapeutic stinks” in which people were advised to either keep many goats in their houses or store flatulence in jars. Every time the deadly disease appeared in one’s neighbourhood, people would open their jars and take several whiffs of flatulence. The principle behind this was that “like destroys like”. It might sound funny, but the pandemic was clearly no joke.

  1. Snail/slug slime for the treatment of warts and ulcers

For topical treatment, snails or slugs would be placed and rubbed against the affected skin area. Slime from snails and slugs had been proven to have therapeutic relevance because it not only contains polymers that promote wound healing, but also possesses antibacterial properties. It was therefore used for skin conditions such as dermatitis and warts. Also, for the treatment of gastritis or peptic ulcers, a slug used to be swallowed whole. Perhaps they believed that the slimy mucus produced by the snail would confer additional protection to the stomach lining thus reducing erosion by gastric acid.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you…”

“Antacids, H2 blockers and PPIs!”

[Loud Applause and Cheering]

This might make you wonder what current treatment procedures may seem barbaric in the future. Perhaps amputations. Or chemo-therapy.

What are your thoughts on today’s topic?  Kindly share and comment down below.  Also, check out our previous blog post Does it Matter What Pharmacy School You Go To if you haven’t already. 


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