History's Creepiest Medical Practices Make Us Thankfulby Carissa Andrews - October 6th, 2014
In this day and age, we sometimes take our modern medicine for granted. I know I certainly do. Currently pregnant, it’s hard for me not to think about our medical practices, what’s to come in the months ahead and to gripe about the insanity of our insurance system. But let me tell you, after researching the ways humanity used to treat illnesses, injuries, and even childbirth – I’m going to close my mouth thank my lucky stars I don’t live in medieval Europe.
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So without further ado, here is the top 10 creepiest medical practices (or advice) you should be thrilled are not in effect today. I know I am!
1. TreppaningThis gnarly procedure is the precursor to the frontal lobotomy, which was equally appalling. Trepanning basically consisted of a medical practitioner drilling a hole into the skull of a patient suffering from intracranial problems such as migraines, seizures, and even mental disorders and exposing the dura mater, the thick membrane surrounding the brain. Gross, right? Apparently, back then they believed that by exposing the brain to more oxygen would help alleviate the symptoms. Interestingly enough, trepanning had a low death rate and even low levels of infection for something as brutal as this. Regardless, you're not likely to see me signing up for it any time soon!
2. BloodlettingDid you know bloodletting is claimed to have been the most common medical practice performed from antiquity until the late 19th century? I don’t know about you, but I have a hard enough time donating blood, let alone draining it just for the sake of it. But that’s exactly what people in the Middle Ages did. Believing in something known as the Four Humours – people in this time believed that by draining excess blood from the body, they would balance out their system and cure – or ward off – any and all illnesses. This was typically done in one of two ways, leeching (yes, with actual leeches) and venesection – the opening of the veins directly so blood flows out. I wonder how many people passed out with venesection under way? I know I would have!
3. ClystersI’m not overly a fan of sticking something metallic in my rear – but this practice from the Middle Ages did just that. In its basic form – the clyster is a metallic device used to give enemas and is even an archaic term for enemas themselves. While we use basic soapy water for enemas now, the concoctions back then were a bit more inventive. The most widely used solution happened to be boar bile. In addition, back in medieval times, clysters were so popular, it’s said that King Louis XIV of France had over 2,000 enemas during his reign—some even administered while he sat on his throne. Now that’s a bit excessive, but okay.
4. Cataract RemovalI can’t imagine this is a fun surgery nowadays, but back in the Middle Ages, you’d be lucky to walk out with your eyesight at all. To rid people of their cataracts, physicians would use a knife or a large needle to remove the cataract through the cornea. Then they would force the lens out through the bottom of the eye. Thankfully, this practice was retired with the influx of Islamic treatments replacing the knife with suction methods.
5. Metallic CathetersThis one is enough to make me cringe – let alone the gentleman out there. In the Middle Ages, diseases such as syphilis were fairly common due to the undiscovered usage of antibiotics and would often cause extreme blockages of the bladder. A metal tube – or catheter – was devised to be inserted into the urethra and through to the bladder. When obstructions were particularly difficult – more horrific ways to extract were devised. Some including holding the patient down, while feeling for stones in the bladder through the anus. Ouch.
6. Urine AntisepticSince were on the subject of pee, there is evidence that urine was used as an antiseptic during the medieval era. Henry VIII’s surgeon recommended all battle wounds to be washed with urine and in 1666it was even recommended urine to be used on the plague. There was even a bottled version: Essence of Urine. On the upside, while using urine sounds kinda nasty – it was probably safer than cleaning the wounds with the water of the time. Urine is naturally sterile as it leaves the body, where the water held no such guarantees!
7. Cauterized HemorrhoidsDuring the Middle Ages, when the lines between paganism and Christianity were blurred, many ailments were given up to prayers to patron Saints for aid. In the case of hemorrhoids, a seventh century Irish monk, St. Fiacre, was the patron saint of said dilemma. In more severe cases of hemorrhoids, medieval physicians used their cautery irons to treat the problem. Nothing like having a hot poker up your bum to make having hemorrhoids seem like a trivial affair!
8. Medieval SurgeryAs far as brutal medical practices go… I’m thinking this one goes without saying. But for the sake of argument, let’s go there. The Middle Ages weren’t generally known for their cleanliness, nor their scientific and/or medical knowledge. Although anesthetic was typically administered, analgesics, antibiotics, and disinfectants were a far cry from what they are today. As a result, many people died from infected wounds.
9. Quicksilver CureIt’s not every day a supposed cure leaves you worse off than when you started – but with enough of this treatment, you just might be. Quicksilver, or now more readily known as Mercury – is a neurotoxin and is highly toxic. Once used to treat trachoma, venereal diseases, and other conditions – it became apparent that this cure might not be all it’s cracked up to be.
10. Childbirth: The death sentenceWell, it’s a darn good thing I’m not living in the Middle Ages, because I’d have to be getting my affairs in order. Childbirth back then was considered so deadly that the Church advised women to prepare their death shroud and confess their sins as soon as possible because death was eminent. Some of this was due to the fact that in those times, people believed suffering was a right of passage due to paying penance for your sins. However, while midwives were customary – the Church had forbidden them from using any form of “witchcraft." The Church went so far as to require midwives to be licensed by a bishop and swear an oath not to use magic when assisting women through labor. This sometimes meant no longer being able to use tried and true techniques for some of the more complicated deliveries, resulting in more casualties.
I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly happy to be living in the 21st century – and far away from the Middle Ages. How about you?
Carissa Andrews is an passionate author and freelancer from Minnesotan with a focus in creative writing.