6 Medical Theories From 1900 That Didn't Pan Out

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istock

The early years of the 20th century were a crucial time in the history of medicine, as breakthroughs in surgical techniques, sanitation, and scientific rigor helped doctors become far more effective at saving and improving lives. Not every theory these pioneers had panned out, though. Here are six that missed the mark.

1. Bicycles Distort Women’s Faces

Throughout the 1890s an increasing number of women began riding bicycles, which gave them the freedom to travel and explore under their own power. Some members of the male medical establishment felt threatened by these women’s newfound independence and began warning of “bicycle face,” a permanent distortion of the features brought on by the strain of bike riding. These quacks’ ominous pronouncements appeared in medical journals and mainstream newspapers alike throughout the late 1890s before giving way in the early 20th century to the related non-illnesses “automobile face” and, in 1908, “aeroplane face.”

2. Electrified Jockstraps Can Cure Erectile Dysfunction 

Women weren’t alone in being targeted by questionable science. In the early 20th century, some of the country’s largest mail-order catalogues offered men the chance to cure everything from kidney disease to impotence to back issues by wearing an “electric belt,” which was basically an expensive jockstrap wired to give wearers small electrical shocks. While they might have sold well, these devices certainly didn’t solve any of the conditions they claimed to cure.

3. Heroin Is a Great Tool for Kicking Your Drug Habit 

When heroin first appeared on pharmacists’ shelves in 1898, doctors hailed it as a miracle drug. Heroin acted as both an effective cough suppressant and a less addictive painkilling alternative to morphine. At the time, morphine addiction was an international crisis, and doctors were willing to try any solution to wean addicts off of the drug. (Over a decade earlier, Sigmund Freud had dabbled in using cocaine to treat morphine addiction before realizing it was a disastrous idea.)

Heroin initially seemed like such a promising solution that one charitable society even proposed mailing morphine addicts free doses of heroin as a crutch on their road to sobriety. However, the truth soon emerged, and by 1902 doctors worried that the new wonder drug was just as addictive as morphine. By 1919, it was illegal to prescribe heroin to morphine addicts.

4. Tainted Meat Causes Scurvy

Scurvy has long been a plague of sailors and soldiers who had no ready supply of fresh fruits and vegetables. Although doctors have known that scurvy can be treated with fresh fruit for centuries, they weren’t certain what actually caused the disease or why fresh fruit was an effective remedy. One prominent theory was that tainted meat – which often found its way into soldiers' and sailors’ diets as they ventured away from supplies of fresh produce – caused scurvy. It wasn’t until British researcher Frederick Hopkins discovered vitamins in 1906 that scientists learned diseases like scurvy were caused not by the presence of germs, but by the absence of the crucial vitamin C.

5. Pregnant Women Pass Their Emotions to Their Babies

Until the early 20th century, some doctors mistakenly believed that if a pregnant mother experienced a great shock, period of sadness, or other strong emotion, her child would be born with inherited personality traits like nervousness or depression.

More extreme versions of this theory of “maternal impression” stretched to the baby’s physical characteristics – a mother who saw a man lose his right hand in an accident would give birth to a baby with no right hand. (That example appears in a pediatrics journal from 1900.) As doctors improved their understanding of genetics in the first decade of the 20th century, the theory of maternal impression became less prevalent.

6. X-Rays Are Great For Your Skin

German scientist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895, and it didn’t take long for doctors to find uses for this incredible radiation. By 1900 specialists were using X-rays for tasks like removing female patients’ unwanted hair and treating their acne. While the X-rays were certainly effective at cosmetic hair removal, the risks associated with these doses of radiation far outweighed their aesthetic benefits. Despite the popularity of X-rays for acne treatment, the practice’s efficacy was never clearly demonstrated, and by the second half of the 20th century doctors abandoned the risky path.

Crocs Is Donating More Than 100,000 Pairs of Shoes to Healthcare Workers

Sturdy, comfortable Crocs are a favorite among healthcare professionals.
Sturdy, comfortable Crocs are a favorite among healthcare professionals.
David Silverman/Getty Images

Crocs have long been a favorite among healthcare workers who spend hours on their feet each day—and now, they can get a pair for free.

This week, the company announced that it will give away more than 100,000 pairs of shoes to medical professionals fighting the new coronavirus in the U.S. ClickOrlando reports that workers can submit their requests for Crocs Classic Clogs or Crocs at Work via an online form on the Crocs website, which will open each weekday at 12 p.m. EST and continue accepting orders until it fulfills its daily allotment.

According to a press release, that allotment is a whopping 10,000 pairs of shoes per day. The as-yet-unspecified end date for the program—called “A Free Pair for Healthcare”—depends on inventory levels and the number of requests the company receives. In addition to shipping shoes to individuals, Crocs is also planning to donate up to 100,000 more pairs directly to healthcare organizations. So far, they’ll send shoes to the Dayton Area Hospital Association in Ohio, St. Anthony North Health Campus in Denver, Colorado, the Atlantic Health System in New Jersey, and more.

“These workers have our deepest respect, and we are humbled to be able to answer their call and provide whatever we can to help during this unprecedented time,” Crocs president and CEO Andrew Rees said in the release. “Share the word to all those in healthcare and please be mindful to allow those who need these most to place their requests. This is the least we can do for those working incredibly hard to defeat this virus.”

Healthcare professionals can request their free Crocs here.

[h/t ClickOrlando]

On This Day in 1953, Jonas Salk Announced His Polio Vaccine

Getty Images
Getty Images

On March 26, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk went on CBS radio to announce his vaccine for poliomyelitis. He had worked for three years to develop the polio vaccine, attacking a disease that killed 3000 Americans in 1952 alone, along with 58,000 newly reported cases. Polio was a scourge, and had been infecting humans around the world for millennia. Salk's vaccine was the first practical way to fight it, and it worked—polio was officially eliminated in the U.S. in 1979.

Salk's method was to kill various strains of the polio virus, then inject them into a patient. The patient's own immune system would then develop antibodies to the dead virus, preventing future infection by live viruses. Salk's first test subjects were patients who had already had polio ... and then himself and his family. His research was funded by grants, which prompted him to give away the vaccine after it was fully tested.

Clinical trials of Salk's vaccine began in 1954. By 1955 the trials proved it was both safe and effective, and mass vaccinations of American schoolchildren followed. The result was an immediate reduction in new cases. Salk became a celebrity because his vaccine saved so many lives so quickly.

Salk's vaccine required a shot. In 1962, Dr. Albert Sabin unveiled an oral vaccine using attenuated (weakened but not killed) polio virus. Sabin's vaccine was hard to test in America in the late 1950s, because so many people had been inoculated using the Salk vaccine. (Sabin did much of his testing in the Soviet Union.) Oral polio vaccine, whether with attenuated or dead virus, is still the preferred method of vaccination today. Polio isn't entirely eradicated around the world, though we're very close.

Here's a vintage newsreel from the mid 1950s telling the story:

For more information on Dr. Jonas Salk and his work, click here.

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