10 Dubious Victorian Cures From the First Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy

Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0 (cropped)
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0 (cropped)

In his work Of the Epidemics, the Greek physician Hippocrates encouraged doctors to “have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm.” Yet the history of medicine has been an exercise in trial and error, with remedies sometimes proving more dangerous than the disease.

Examples of such dubious and sometimes potentially deadly cures abound in the first edition of The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, the oldest continuously published English-language medical textbook. First published by the American drug manufacturer Merck & Co in 1899, the manual’s original edition suggests remedies such as hot baths for heat exhaustion, coffee for insomnia, nitroglycerin for headaches, and opium for constipation.

“What’s most fascinating to me are drugs that have an immediate dangerous effect,” says Robert S. Porter, M.D., editor-in-chief of the manual’s 20th edition, which was published earlier this year. “Cocaine for angina? Cocaine is a vasoconstrictor that causes heart attack. Give it to someone with angina and they might die. The bulk of the book is things that simply don't work—that are useless or odd—but these ones really raise questions as to how people could recommend them.”

Here's a selection of puzzling remedies from the first edition, some of which went on to be recommended for decades.

1. ARSENIC FOR ANEMIA

Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

Arsenic was one of the top remedies the manual recommended for anemia. Though arsenic had been known as a poison since ancient times, medicines containing small doses of the substance were long used for conditions ranging from anthrax to syphilis to anemia. By the 19th century, arsenic was being inhaled as vapors, ingested, injected, and given in enemas for a variety of ailments. In fact, so many people suffered symptoms—such as rashes, stomach distress, and headaches—from taking arsenic remedies during the Victorian era that their ailments are now sometimes referred to as “Fowler’s disease," after the popular remedy Fowler’s Solution, which contained potassium arsenite.

2. LAXATIVES FOR CHICKENPOX

Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

Before chickenpox vaccinations became available in the U.S. in 1995, an average of 4 million people each year suffered through itchy outbreaks. When the Merck Manual was first published, part of the comprehensive treatment plan for an "eruptive fever"—whether it was chickenpox, smallpox, or scarlet fever—was laxatives, ideally a dose of castor oil. The idea was to purge the body of the infectious disease, but such treatment usually just compounded the misery and forced the patient to stay close to the toilet.

3. STRYCHNINE FOR CONSTIPATION

Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

Even a tiny dose of strychnine can cause convulsions. Yet the Merck Manual, following the medical practice of the day, recommended small amounts as a treatment for acute constipation. Commonly derived from the plant Strychnos nux-vomica, strychnine was thought to improve gastric function. (Strychnine injections were also recommended for both flatulence and ulcers.) Opium and turpentine were also recommended, but patients probably derived more relief from the less dramatic manual-recommended regimens, such as eating apples and figs or drinking coffee.

4. CHLOROFORM FOR HICCUPS

Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

Bad case of the hiccups? Today, you might be told to hold your breath or drink water. But in 1899, your doctor might recommend inhaling chloroform. An organic compound that also a popular anesthetic in the 19th and early 20th century, chloroform eventually fell out of favor because of its potential to damage the nervous system, liver, and kidneys. Other hiccup remedies listed in the Merck manual included nitroglycerin and the slightly less toxic sugar and vinegar.

5. INHALING SMOKE FOR ASTHMA

Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

As counterintuitive as it seems today, the manual noted that "smoking is sometimes beneficial" for asthma, adding that “cannabis indica can be used in chronic cases.” The manual was far from alone in recommending the practice; throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, inhaling the fumes of tobacco and cannabis, as well as stramonium (a hallucination-inducing nightshade) and lobelia (a flowering plant known for its sedative properties) were popular treatments for asthmatics. There were even special anti-asthma cigarettes. We now know that inhaling any kind of smoke has been shown to damage and eventually reduce the number of cilia—the fine lung filaments which, when healthy, help transport mucus in the lungs—which only leads to a worsening of asthma symptoms.

6. BLOODLETTING FOR NAUSEA

Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

Bloodletting—with leeches or other means—has been used to treat various ailments, including excessive bleeding, for thousands of years. The Ancient Greek physicians thought that it was sometimes necessary to balance blood and other bodily fluids, known as humors. The practice remained a standard treatment for many ailments, including nausea and morning sickness during pregnancy, well into the 19th century. It was thought to regulate the pulse, alleviate fever, and calm pain. While bloodletting can actually help with a few conditions, such as hemochromatosis (a genetic disorder leading to abnormal iron accumulation in the liver), doctors eventually realized that bleeding could also weaken patients and that frequent cutting could lead to infections.

As well as this traditional remedy, the manual’s first edition also recommended cocaine, the wonder drug of the day, to treat all kinds of nausea. Better and less stomach-turning effects could have been achieved with another recommended remedy: cinnamon.

7. COLD DOUCHES FOR INSOMNIA

Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

Alcohol, cannabis indica, and “cold douches” were effective remedies for insomnia, according to the Merck Manual. Cold douches—being blasted with cold water—might not seem sleep-inducing, yet in the late 19th and early 20th century this form of hydrotherapy was recommended as a way to improve circulation, fight infection, and treat headaches as well as insomnia. “By this means, the brain is enabled to resume a healthier mode of action, and sleep follows as a matter of course,” wrote Dr. Henry M. Lyman in his 1885 book Insomnia and Other Disorders of Sleep. Other remedies the manual recommended for insomnia included coffee, alcohol, and putting hot water bags on your feet while applying cold ones to your head.

8. BELLADONNA FOR COLIC

Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

Misguided medical notions were also applied to easing colic—the severe bouts of stomach pain often suffered by very young babies. The Merck Manual recommended ammonia, turpentine, and belladonna—a poisonous plant in the deadly nightshade family—for relief from colic spasms. Belladonna is still used modern medicines for adults (it's the main ingredient in the drops your eye doctor uses to dilate your eyes), but according to the FDA, “there is no known safe dose or toxic dose of belladonna in children.” In 2010, the FDA warned against its use in homeopathic teething tablets.

9. LEECHES FOR EARACHES

Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

Using leeches for an ear infection might sound disgusting at best, but there was some medical justification for the manual's recommendation. Once leeches are firmly attached to their host, they can numb pain, while peptides and proteins in their saliva prevent blood clotting, so they can help drain an infection. Modern medicine has recently taken another look at leeches: In 2004, the FDA decided the creatures met the definition of a live medical device, since their tiny jaws (and anticoagulants) keep blood flowing, which helps wounds to heal. They can also be used to break up blood clots, treat varicose veins, and improve other circulatory disorders.

10. COCAINE FOR ALCOHOLISM

Merck's 1899 Manual of the Materia Medica, Internet Archive // Public Domain

In the 1880s, Sigmund Freud helped popularize the idea of using cocaine to treat alcoholism, calling it a “magical drug.” In its heyday, cocaine was also promoted as a cure for morphine addiction, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and migraines. It was available over the counter in tonics, powders, wines, and soft drinks. Patients likely felt energized by regular cocaine infusions, but they soon became habituated. (Freud experimented on himself for a few years until the mounting evidence of cocaine’s addictive nature proved too much to ignore; the drug was made illegal in the U.S. in 1914.) The 1899 manual also offered simpler, less dangerous—but also likely ineffective—ways to battle alcohol cravings, including slowly sucking an orange or drinking water hot ("one pint drunk as hot as possible an hour before meals will remove craving"), or cold in small sips.

Amazon’s Big Fall Sale Features Deals on Electronics, Kitchen Appliances, and Home Décor

Dash/Keurig
Dash/Keurig

If you're looking for deals on items like Keurigs, BISSELL vacuums, and essential oil diffusers, it's usually pretty slim pickings until the holiday sales roll around. Thankfully, Amazon is starting these deals a little earlier with their Big Fall Sale, where customers can get up to 20 percent off everything from home decor to WFH essentials and kitchen gadgets. Now you won’t have to wait until Black Friday for the deal you need. Make sure to see all the deals that the sale has to offer here and check out our favorites below.

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12 Surprising Facts About T.S. Eliot

Getty
Getty

Born September 26, 1888, modernist poet and playwright Thomas Stearns (T.S.) Eliot is best known for writing "The Waste Land." But the 1948 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was also a prankster who coined a perennially popular curse word, and created the characters brought to life in the Broadway musical "Cats." In honor of Eliot’s birthday, here are a few things you might not know about the writer.

1. T.S. Eliot enjoyed holding down "real" jobs.

Throughout his life, Eliot supported himself by working as a teacher, banker, and editor. He could only write poetry in his spare time, but he preferred it that way. In a 1959 interview with The Paris Review, Eliot remarked that his banking and publishing jobs actually helped him be a better poet. “I feel quite sure that if I’d started by having independent means, if I hadn’t had to bother about earning a living and could have given all my time to poetry, it would have had a deadening influence on me,” Eliot said. “The danger, as a rule, of having nothing else to do is that one might write too much rather than concentrating and perfecting smaller amounts.”

2. One of the longest-running Broadway shows ever exists thanks to T.S. Eliot.

Getty Images

In 1939, Eliot published a book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which included feline-focused verses he likely wrote for his godson. In stark contrast to most of Eliot's other works—which are complex and frequently nihilistic—the poems here were decidedly playful. For Eliot, there was never any tension between those two modes: “One wants to keep one’s hand in, you know, in every type of poem, serious and frivolous and proper and improper. One doesn’t want to lose one’s skill,” he explained in his Paris Review interview. A fan of Eliot's Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats since childhood, in the late '70s, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to set many of Eliot's poems to music. The result: the massively successful stage production "Cats," which opened in London in 1981 and, after its 1982 NYC debut, became one of the longest-running Broadway shows of all time.

3. Three hours per day was his T.S. Eliot’s writing limit.

Eliot wrote poems and plays partly on a typewriter and partly with pencil and paper. But no matter what method he used, he tried to always keep a three hour writing limit. “I sometimes found at first that I wanted to go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory," he explained. "It’s much better to stop and think about something else quite different.”

4. T.S. Eliot considered "Four Quartets" to be his best work.

In 1927, Eliot converted to Anglicanism and became a British citizen. His poems and plays in the 1930s and 1940s—including "Ash Wednesday," "Murder in the Cathedral," and "Four Quartets"—reveal themes of religion, faith, and divinity. He considered "Four Quartets,” a set of four poems that explored philosophy and spirituality, to be his best writing. Out of the four, the last is his favorite.

5. T.S. Eliot had an epistolary friendship with Groucho Marx.

Eliot wrote comedian Groucho Marx a fan letter in 1961. Marx replied, gave Eliot a photo of himself, and started a correspondence with the poet. After writing back and forth for a few years, they met in real life in 1964, when Eliot hosted Marx and his wife for dinner at his London home. The two men, unfortunately, didn’t hit it off. The main issue, according to a letter Marx wrote his brother: the comedian had hoped he was in for a "Literary Evening," and tried to discuss King Lear. All Eliot wanted to talk about was Marx's 1933 comedy Duck Soup. (In a 2014 piece for The New Yorker, Lee Siegel suggests there had been "simmering tension" all along, even in their early correspondence.)

6. Ezra Pound tried to crowdfund T.S. Eliot’s writing.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1921, Eliot took a few months off from his banking job after a nervous breakdown. During this time, he finished writing "The Waste Land," which his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound edited. Pound, with the help of other Bohemian writers, set up Bel Esprit, a fund to raise money for Eliot so he could quit his bank job to focus on writing full-time. Pound managed to get several subscribers to pledge money to Eliot, but Eliot didn’t want to give up his career, which he genuinely liked. The Liverpool Post, Chicago Daily Tribune, and the New York Tribune reported on Pound’s crowdfunding campaign, incorrectly stating that Eliot had taken the money, but continued working at the bank. After Eliot protested, the newspapers printed a retraction.

7. Writing in French helped T.S. Eliot overcome writer’s block.

After studying at Harvard, Eliot spent a year in Paris and fantasized about writing in French rather than English. Although little ever came of that fantasy, during a period of writer’s block, Eliot did manage to write a few poems in French. “That was a very curious thing which I can’t altogether explain. At that period I thought I’d dried up completely. I hadn’t written anything for some time and was rather desperate,” he told The Paris Review. “I started writing a few things in French and found I could, at that period ...Then I suddenly began writing in English again and lost all desire to go on with French. I think it was just something that helped me get started again."

8. T.S. Eliot set off stink bombs in London with his nephew.

Eliot, whose friends and family called him Tom, was supposedly a big prankster. When his nephew was young, Eliot took him to a joke shop in London to purchase stink bombs, which they promptly set off in the lobby of a nearby hotel. Eliot was also known to hand out exploding cigars, and put whoopee cushions on the chairs of his guests.

9. T.S. Eliot may have been the first person to write the word "bulls**t."

In the early 1910s, Eliot wrote a poem called "The Triumph of Bulls**t." Like an early 20th-century Taylor Swift tune, the poem was Eliot’s way of dissing his haters. In 1915, he submitted the poem to a London magazine … which rejected it for publication. The word bulls**t isn’t in the poem itself, only the poem’s title, but The Oxford English Dictionary credits the poem with being the first time the curse word ever appeared in print.

10. T.S. Eliot coined the expression “April is the cruelest month.”

Thanks to Eliot, the phrase “April is the cruelest month” has become an oft-quoted, well-known expression. It comes from the opening lines of "The Waste Land”: “April is the cruelest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”

11. T.S. Eliot held some troubling beliefs about religion.

Over the years, Eliot made some incredibly problematic remarks about Jewish people, including arguing that members of a society should have a shared religious background, and that a large number of Jews creates an undesirably heterogeneous culture. Many of his early writing also featured offensive portrayals of Jewish characters. (As one critic, Joseph Black, pointed out in a 2010 edition of "The Waste Land" and Other Poems, "Few published works displayed the consistency of association that one finds in Eliot's early poetry between what is Jewish and what is squalid and distasteful.") Eliot's defenders argue that the poet's relationship with Jewish people was much more nuanced that his early poems suggest, and point to his close relationships with a number of Jewish writers and artists.

12. You can watch a movie based on T.S. Eliot’s (really bad) marriage.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tom & Viv, a 1994 film starring Willem Dafoe, explores Eliot’s tumultuous marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a dancer and socialite. The couple married in 1915, a few months after they met, but the relationship quickly soured. Haigh-Wood had constant physical ailments, mental health problems, and was addicted to ether. The couple spent a lot of time apart and separated in the 1930s; she died in a mental hospital in 1947. Eliot would go on to remarry at the age of 68—his 30-year-old secretary, Esmé Valerie Fletcher—and would later reveal that his state of despair during his first marriage was the catalyst and inspiration for "The Waste Land."

This story has been updated for 2020.