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

A page from the Merck Manual about 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

A page from the Merck Manual about 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

A page from the Merck Manual about 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

A page from the Merck Manual about 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

A page from the Merck Manual about 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

A page from the Merck Manual about 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

A page from the Merck Manual about 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

A page from the Merck Manual about 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

A page from the Merck Manual about 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

A page from the Merck Manual about 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.

The ChopBox Smart Cutting Board Has a Food Scale, Timer, and Knife Sharper Built Right Into It

ChopBox
ChopBox

When it comes to furnishing your kitchen with all of the appliances necessary to cook night in and night out, you’ll probably find yourself running out of counter space in a hurry. The ChopBox, which is available on Indiegogo and dubs itself “The World’s First Smart Cutting Board,” looks to fix that by cramming a bunch of kitchen necessities right into one cutting board.

In addition to giving you a knife-resistant bamboo surface to slice and dice on, the ChopBox features a built-in digital scale that weighs up to 6.6 pounds of food, a nine-hour kitchen timer, and two knife sharpeners. It also sports a groove on its surface to catch any liquid runoff that may be produced by the food and has a second pull-out cutting board that doubles as a serving tray.

There’s a 254nm UVC light featured on the board, which the company says “is guaranteed to kill 99.99% of germs and bacteria" after a minute of exposure. If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to cleanliness, the ChopBox is completely waterproof (but not dishwasher-safe) so you can wash and scrub to your heart’s content without worry. 

According to the company, a single one-hour charge will give you 30 days of battery life, and can be recharged through a Micro USB port.

The ChopBox reached its $10,000 crowdfunding goal just 10 minutes after launching its campaign, but you can still contribute at different tiers. Once it’s officially released, the ChopBox will retail for $200, but you can get one for $100 if you pledge now. You can purchase the ChopBox on Indiegogo here.

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12 Smart and Simple Kitchen Hacks

Merlas/iStock via Getty Images Plus
Merlas/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Use these quick and simple tricks to save time in the kitchen and make cooking easier—and safer.

1. Put a damp paper towel under your cutting board.

Take a paper towel, wet it, wring it out, and place it under your cutting board. This will keep the board from slipping all over your counter and allow you to cut more safely. You can put a damp paper towel under mixing bowls to keep them from sliding around, too.

2. Use cooking spray on your cheese grater.

A person using a cheese grater
Whichever way you have your grater positioned, a little cooking spray will make the job easier.
vinicef/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Before you start grating cheese, lay your grater down on its side, which keeps it from moving around and catches all of your cheese in once place. Then spray the surface with the cooking spray of your choice. The oil lubricates the surface and makes grating easier, especially for sticky cheeses.

3. Put felt glides under countertop appliances.

Not only will this save your countertops from getting scratched, but it also makes oft-used appliances easier to move when you need them.

4. Put a spoon on top of boiling pasta water.

A person holding a spoon with penne pasta over a pot of boiling water.
Foam be gone!
Andrii Pohranychnyi/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Does the foam of your starchy pasta water boil right up out of the pot? There’s a simple fix: Lay a metal or wooden spoon over the top of the pot. According to Gizmodo, this method works because the foam is “thermodynamically unstable," so when the foam’s bubbles reach the spoon, they burst, "breaking the layer of foam and sending all the bubbles collapsing down again.” If you opt for metal, though, make sure to use oven mitts to remove it from the top of the pot—it will be hot.

5. Keep dental floss handy.

You can use it to cut soft cheeses. “If the cheese is small, you can hold it in one hand while your other pulls the floss taught and does the cutting,” cheesemonger Nora Singley writes at The Kitchn. “For larger situations, place cheese on a surface, shimmy the floss beneath it, and simply slice up, holding both ends of the floss and crossing the two ends to complete the cut. Then repeat in equal intervals.”

You can also use non-minty dental floss to cut cookie dough, burritos, and hard-boiled eggs; slice melons and layers of cake; to tie things together; and get food unstuck from baking sheets.

6. Preheat your baking sheet.

A baking sheet in the oven.
Pre-heating your baking sheet saves time.
allanswart/iStock via Getty Images Plus

If you’re making something like French fries or roasted veggies and your baking sheet is hot right from the get-go, you won’t have to go through the process of flipping your food later. Plus, both side of your food will be evenly browned and cook faster.

7. Save burnt pans with a dryer sheet.

Have you charred a pan so badly that the food you're trying to cook essentially became a part of the pan? Before you throw the pan out, try tossing in a dryer sheet, adding warm water, and letting it soak for 15 to 20 minutes. Then wash with soap and water as usual, and the burned bits will come right off. Karen Lo at Food52 writes that “It feels like an absolute miracle—because it is. But, according to lifestyle reporter Anna De Souza, it’s also ‘likely the conditioning properties of the dryer sheet’ that do the trick.” If the burn is really bad, Lo says you can use two dryer sheets and hot water for severe cases if you’d like, and let it soak overnight—use your judgment.

8. Leave the root end on your onion when cutting it.

A person holding an onion by the root end and dicing an onion with a knife.
Leaving the root end of your onion on gives you something to hold onto while you're dicing.
andreygonchar/iStock via Getty Images Plus

This method is a game changer: It allows you to dice your onions safely and quickly. First, according to Real Simple, you should cut the top off of the onion; then lay the onion on the now-flat top and cut the vegetable in half through the root. Next, peel off the skin, being careful to leave the root attached. Take half of the onion and lay it, flat side down, on the cutting board. Holding on to the root end, slice the onion vertically in strips of your desired size, without cutting through to the root. Then slice in the opposite direction to dice. When you’re done, save the root end of the onion to make stock.

9. Use a Bundt pan when cutting corn.

When you’re cutting corn on a flat surface, the kernels tend to fly everywhere messily. But if you hold the ear of corn—pointy end down—on the center of a Bundt cake pan, then rotate as you cut, the kernels will fall neatly into the pan.

10. Put away your potato peeler and use this method instead.

A pot of boiling water with potatoes.
dashtik/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Peeling potatoes is time-consuming and wastes delicious potato. Instead, use this potato peeling hack from Foody Tube: Make a small cut into the skin around the circumference of the potato, then boil it. Once the potato is cooked, peel the skin off. It’s that easy.

11. Keep your plastic wrap in the fridge.

When it’s cold, plastic wrap is easier to handle and less likely to get stuck to itself.

If getting plastic wrap to stick is the issue, wet the rim of whatever you’re trying to cover before putting on the plastic. The water will help it cling to the surface.

12. Use magnets to hold down parchment paper.

Two rolls of parchment paper on a white surface.
Keep parchment paper from rolling up on your baking sheet with this clever trick.
Viktoriia Oleinichenko/iStock via Getty Images Plus

To keep parchment paper from rolling up on baking sheets—and therefore making it incredibly difficult actually to put anything on the sheet to cook—Le Cordon Bleu-educated pastry chef Amy Dieschbourg uses magnets to hold the paper in place. Once everything is on the paper, remove the magnets and get cooking.