Renee Olsson

May 26, 2021

‘First, do no harm.’

This creed has echoed throughout history. However, a look back in time reveals treatments that appear to go against this oath. Some of these are stuck in the past or have influenced how we use medicine now. However, others are still used today!
We’ve taken a closer look at 12 health treatments over history that are largely unconventional by today’s medical standards.

Based on our research, we’ve ranked these treatments on a scoring system that measures how effective, safe and prominent they appear to be – and if they’ve evolved into what we rely on today in a modern setting.

The higher the score, the more unconventional we deem the treatment overall (just wait until you see number 12).

If you’re eating, put down the sandwich. If you’ve eaten, well… happy reading!

Scoring methodology

Below is how we scored our list of unconventional treatments. Keep in mind that we’ve based all our scores on the research we conducted. As such, each score should not be taken as a complete representation of the treatments.

 

In the 1920s, Dr William Baer joined forces with maggots by applying them to non-healing wounds. His interest in this type of treatment sparked during his time in World War One; he noticed US soldiers with potentially lethal wounds weren’t dying if their injures were filled with the wriggly critters.4

Maggots secrete enzymes that disinfect wounds as they liquify dying tissue. They don’t take in any healthy flesh, and they promote the growth of new blood vessels and tissue.5

In the late 1940s, penicillin and other surgical procedures mostly replaced maggot therapy.6

However, maggots are still used in a modern medical setting today, particularly in cases where more conventional options aren’t effective for antibiotic-resistant wounds or non-healing wounds.

Over time, doctors have learnt to bandage these wounds in such a way that stops the maggots from migrating elsewhere (and to help absorb the excess liquid the creepy crawlies produce).7

Maggots are approved and regulated by US Food and Drug Administration as medical devices.8

Has a leech ever latched onto your ankle during a hike? Well, just know that it could have earned you some cash in the 1800s. During this time, ‘leech collectors’ would wade out into lakes and ponds to catch leeches on their legs and feet as a popular way to earn their keep.13

So, why the fascination with these vampiric ‘worms’? Well, when a leech bites your skin, it injects an anticoagulant called hirudin. This substance, which is found in the leech’s saliva, prevents your blood from clotting, making it easier for the leech to feast.

Leeches’ anticoagulant powers have been harnessed through history, seemingly since Ancient Egypt. This practice aided bloodletting (which we discuss further below) and helped treat a range of ailments, from dental issues and rheumatic pains to inflammation, hearing loss and even casting out evil spirits.

Nowadays, leech therapy is used as a medical aid to stop venous congestion (congestion of blood flow in the veins) after microsurgery and plastic surgery. The leech aids in blood circulation and helps salvage reattached fingers, nasal tips, skin grafts and skin flaps for wound closures.

Researchers are looking to use mechanical leeches to overcome the ‘yuck factor’ and potentially provide an even more effective way of administering the anticoagulant.14

Our gut is comprised of a plethora of microorganisms that help keep us healthy. However, disease, diet and medications (like antibiotics) can throw off this balance,18 and can cause a compromised immune system and digestive complaints.19

One way to help correct this imbalance is through faecal microbiota transplantation (FMT). That is, taking a healthy donor’s gut microflora from their stool – or a product processed from their stool – and placing it into the bowel of someone with gut issues.20 Such treatment is typically targeted towards those with inflammatory bowel diseases and other conditions or infections.21

This treatment wasn’t borne from a fever dream. The FMT you see in some hospitals or treatment facilities today stems back to fourth-century Ancient China. Records show that a type of yellow soupy substance (the ‘golden syrup’) was given to those suffering from severe cases of food poisoning and diarrhoea.22

Since the rise of antibiotics, doctors have attempted to rectify the damage it causes to the gut’s microflora. According to Groot et al., Colorado-based surgeons treated four patients critically ill with pseudomembranous colitis (swollen/inflamed large intestine) with fecal enemas from healthy donors; treatment saw a quick recovery.23

Today, FMT may be offered via enemas, colonoscopy, sigmoidoscopy, nasogastric or nasoduodenal tubes. According to the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration, the stool can even be processed in a way that you can take it via a pill.24

This may sound counterintuitive, but once your heart starts beating again after cardiac arrest, doctors may induce therapeutic hypothermia.29

That is, doctors may use cooling devices to lower your body’s temperature to typically 32-34 degrees Celsius (89.6-93.2 degrees Fahrenheit) for a controlled period (e.g. 24 hours). Our normal body temperature usually sits around 36-37 degrees Celsius (96.8-98.6 degrees Fahrenheit).30

Why? Well, once your heart starts beating and takes oxygen to vital organs – including your brain – scientists believe chemicals can flood these organs, causing cell damage and neuro injury. Hypothermia supposedly suppresses these reactions.31

It wasn’t until the 1950s that therapeutic hypothermia was used as a treatment for cardiac arrest sufferers.32 At this time, moderate hypothermia was used, where the body was cooled to between 28-32 degrees Celsius (82.4-89.6 degrees Fahrenheit).33

The first clinical trial of hypothermia for cardiac arrest sufferers appeared in 1958 – there was a 50% survival rate for patients that were treated with hypothermia compared to 14% who weren’t.34

Hypothermia is even used for newborns with hypoxic-ischaemic encephalopathy (HIE) – a brain injury caused by oxygen deprivation. Better Safer Care Victoria explains that, particularly for babies, hypothermia can reduce mortality and neurodevelopmental disability and outweigh the shorter-term side effects.35

If you don’t have an aversion to blood or needles today, you might have had one a few thousand years ago.

Bloodletting was a wildly popular practice from Ancient Egypt where a physician (or even a barber)43 would use a blade to pierce a vein, usually at your elbow.44 Blood would flow freely and collect into a bleeding bowl.

Physicians could also create bleeding via scarification with multiple blades, and the blood was collected by cups (known as ‘wet cupping’). Or, they could use leeches, which they’d carry in jars.

Throughout the Middle Ages, it seemed bloodletting tied into Hippocrates’ concept that the human body was comprised of the four humors: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm.45 If you were unwell, it meant you had an imbalance of one of these humors46 – and so bloodletting was one treatment method.

In the 1830s, bloodletting faced its share of scrutiny, and French physician Pierre Charles Alexandre Louis helped further stem its widespread popularity by discrediting its purported benefits.47

Today, bloodletting is known as phlebotomy and exists to help doctors diagnose illnesses by testing your blood.48 However, bloodletting exists for disorders like polycythemia vera – a condition where your body produces too many blood cells; bloodletting is used to remove excess blood units.49

Trepanation (also spelled trephination or called burr holing) was a popular procedure from the Neolithic Age, and dating back as early as 6,500 BC.54 It involves a doctor sawing, cutting or scraping a hole (or multiple holes) into the skull.55

This procedure appears to be the oldest documented surgery. Greek physicians Hippocrates (c. 460 BC – 370 BC) and Galen (c. 130 AD – 210 AD) noted it as a method to treat fractured skulls (including removing splintered bone), closed head traumas and ailments like migraines or epilepsy.56

Scholars believe that in some ancient cultures, trepanation was used to release evil spirits from those who had a mental illness.

Some trepanned skulls reveal evidence of healing, which shows these patients survived after the operation. However, some patients didn’t – though, scholars find it hard to determine whether these patients were operated on while alive or dead.57

Arani et al. explain in their article, ‘Ancient Legacy of Cranial Surgery’, that neurosurgeons use trepanning today. This procedure is known as a craniotomy, and surgeons use it to diagnose, relieve intracranial pressure (from a bleed on the brain) and to gain access to the brain. However, surgeons typically replace the bone afterwards, rather than leaving a hole.58

In the late 19th century, those with arthritis weren’t having a whale of a time – until they were.

According to the Australian National Maritime Museum, the curious ‘cure’ for rheumatoid arthritis was found by sitting inside a whale’s carcass. The patient would hop into a hole cut into the carcass, keeping only their head out of the rotting cavern; there they would remain for periods of 20 to 30 hours.60

Those brave enough would let the gases and heat of the decomposing body relieve the pain of their disease. Supposedly, their symptoms would ease for around 12 months.

This fishy tale originates in Eden of Twofold Bay in New South Wales, Australia. This town was a popular whaling district. However, the Australian National Maritime Museum says such a cure really stemmed from the Twofold Bay’s indigenous people – the local Yuin people.

As whaling declined around World War One, so too did this treatment.

Nowadays, many doctors recommend fish oils for those suffering from arthritis.61 Though, it doesn’t seem like marinating in a whale’s corpse informed this practice.

During the quest for painless procedures, cocaine reared its head as an effective – albeit addictive – way to numb the pain.

That’s right! Cocaine is a naturally occurring local anesthetic,65 which is obtained from coca leaves.66 According to the Science Museum, Incas would place chewed leaves in wounds during trepanation.67 However, it wasn’t until 1860 that German chemist Albert Niemann isolated cocaine from the leaves.

Then, in 1884, Dr William Halsted used cocaine as a nerve blocker – and it worked! Sadly, he and some of his colleagues fell into cocaine addiction. In the 1890s, some doctors gave patients incorrect doses of cocaine, causing potentially fatal toxicity.68

In 1905, Dr Alfred Einhorn created procaine – a safer, synthetic version of cocaine (also known as Novocaine), which was less addictive and was popularly used in dentistry. From here, other local anesthetics were developed.

Nowadays, a newer adaptation called lidocaine is one of the most prominent local anesthetics, especially in America. However, the type of local anesthetic you receive will depend on your type of surgery and its duration.69

It seems that if you were to have a great fall in Ancient Egypt, physicians might have used ostrich eggs to put you back together again.

The Edwin Smith Papyrus contains the earliest known writings on medical observations. According to translations of this text and scholarly articles, the document suggests using ground ostrich eggshells to help patch up skull fractures.73,74

It seems ground eggshell was mixed with a type of oil and applied into the wound, followed by powdered eggshell (and an incantation for good measure). Supposedly, the powdered eggshell was used to dry the wound and create an even surface in the skull plate.75

When looking to trepanation, which also originated from Ancient Egypt, some patients survived, while others died. We don’t know if this ‘eggshell treatment’ posed the same risks. It’s also difficult to be sure if this treatment was effective – or if physicians thought it helped, given the eggshell made the skull look whole again.

Today, surgeons use a range of materials to fix cranial defects during cranioplasty – some of these are used to match the shape of the skull.76,77

It’s curious to wonder if this practice has informed medicine throughout the ages, or if it remains frozen in the pages of the Edwin Smith Papyrus. As such, we’ve averaged out the scores for effectiveness and prominence to offer a more representative view. We also averaged the score of safety, based on our trepanation research.

Until 1917, the sexually transmitted disease, syphilis, didn’t have any effective treatment.

During this time, the mosquito-borne disease, malaria, did have treatment in the form of quinine (a component that comes from the bark of a cinchona tree).81 This disease was marked by parasites that would burst red blood cells in the body and cause dangerously high fevers.82

Naturally, Austrian psychiatrist, Julius Wagner-Jauregg, inoculated nine patients suffering from neurosyphilis with malaria. Neurosyphilis is an often-fatal stage of syphilis once the disease spreads to the nervous system and brain (which can result in delusions, dementia and paralysis).83

As malaria would cause dangerous fever attacks (where a patient could reach up to 40 degrees Celsius – or 104 degrees Fahrenheit), Wagner-Jauregg thought it would help kill the bacteria that caused the syphilitic infection. It largely appeared to work!84

Once the syphilis was cured or in remission (typically seven to 12 days of fever),85 the patient would receive their dose of quinine to treat their malarial infection.

In his Nobel Prize Speech in 1927 for this treatment, Wagner-Jauregg explained six of his nine patients were in remission from their disease – three of these cases had remission enduring.86 Though, some other patients did pass away, particularly during the early stages of the treatment.87

Once penicillin was discovered in the 1940s, malariotherapy and other fever treatments for syphilis fell out of favour.88

Cheers to good health!

According to the Pan African Medical Journal, drinking urine (also known as urine therapy) has been practised for millennia around the globe.91

Sometimes called ‘gold of the blood’, this practice was also prescribed in the Middle Ages and Renaissance to the 18th century to help alleviate ailments. Urine therapy has even trickled into some alternative treatments today (though not yet in a mainstream, conventional medical setting).92

In 1945, naturopath John W Armstrong put forward a case stating that all disease, aside from those caused by structural disorders or trauma, could be cured by the ‘elixir of long life’. According to a blurb for his book titled The Water of Life: A Treatise on Urine Therapy, urine therapy could offer the body what decomposing leaves offer soil; valuable minerals and substances.93

The journal states that urine therapy is founded on pseudoscience and that supporters exaggerate its benefits. What’s more, while urine is sterile in the kidney, it’s contaminated to a degree once it leaves the body.94

In the conventional medical setting, it seems no medical evidence is available to support urine therapy as a sound treatment.

Those who needed some pep in their step in the late 19th century turned to a drink that – literally – outshone your average latte: radium tonic.

After the discovery of radium in 1898, concerning medical treatments bubbled to the surface as businesses wanted to capitalise off this new and exciting find.

One such product, ‘RadiThor’, graced the shelves in the 1920s in 30-millilitre bottles (one-ounce bottles) for US$1 a pop.97 RadiThor was advertised to help treat an alphabet of ailments, from anemia and asthma to kidney disease and virility.98

This tonic, created by Bailey Radium Laboratories, was comprised of radium (ra-226 and ra-228) dissolved in distilled water.99 As the product was accurately described as ‘radioactive water’ on the label, it was found to be legal under the 1906 Act.100 This Act prevented the selling of misbranded and poisonous goods – among other things.101

However, the bottle failed to mention that consumption could lead to lost jaws – also known as radium bone necrosis (don’t look it up!) – and a painful death. In 1932, Eben Byers, a popular businessman and athlete, swore by the tonic for good health. Sadly, he was buried in a lead-lined coffin.102

Today, radium is hardly used medicinally, except for treating certain types of bone cancers.103

It’s clear that humankind has come a long way from yesteryear’s medical solutions to the modern alternatives we see today.

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Sources

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