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.