9 Terrifying Medical Treatments from 1900 and Their Safer Modern Versions

istock
istock

The next time you have to endure a boring stay in a doctor’s waiting room, be thankful you don’t live in the early 20th century. Even as medicine was rapidly improving, these downright scary or dangerous treatments were still lingering.

1. Radium Water

Before radioactivity was fully understood, naturally occurring radium was lauded for its seemingly otherworldly benefits. Water was kept in radium-laced buckets, and people would drink the tainted liquid to cure everything from arthritis to impotence. Of course, this was an awful idea, and when people started to drop dead from this miracle water, the connection was made. Now, non-radioactive prescription drugs are used to combat arthritis and impotence.

2. Ecraseur

This obsolete tool had a chain loop that the doctor would tighten around a cyst or hemorrhoid. This constriction would rob the area of blood flow, which would cause the offending lump to fall off. In modern medical offices, creams are used to ease hemorrhoids away, while more delicate surgery is most often used to remove cysts.

3. Plombage

Plombage was a risky early 20th century treatment for tuberculosis in which a surgeon would create a cavity in a patient’s lower lung and fill it with a foreign material such as lucite balls. This procedure would make the upper, infected lung collapse. The theory maintained that a collapsed lung would eventually heal itself. Thanks to modern vaccines, TB has been largely eradicated throughout much of the developed world, although it is far from completely eliminated globally.

4. Peg Legs

Before the advent of advanced prosthetics, wooden pegs had to be jammed into the hollowed-out cavities of an amputee’s leg or strapped to the patient’s waist. The device would be shaped and carved to the correct height, and occasionally the fit was perfect. Some recipients of the procedure were able to walk for miles without noticing discomfort. Still, they were no match for modern prostheses.

5. Gasoline to Cure Lice

In the early 20th century, a patient with a bad case of head lice would douse his or her dome with gasoline or kerosene in an effort to rid their scalp of the unwanted guests. While this treatment may have been somewhat effective, it was also incredibly dangerous to anyone who walked near an open flame. Modern medicine can solve the infestation much more safely with medicated shampoo.

6. Morphine for Teething

Any parent can understand the necessity of soothing a teething baby’s pain, but even into the 20th century some moms and dads were taking incredibly risky or downright dangerous steps to help their tots. In addition to lancing (cutting the gums to give the new teeth a clear pathway to emerge), parents gave children morphine syrups to ease their crying and dusted their gums with powders that contained deadly mercury. Modern parents are luckier and can use non-toxic pain relievers or chilled teething toys.

7. Mercury for Syphilis

For most of history, a syphilis diagnosis was incredibly grim news, and at the turn of the 20th century, most doctors’ best treatment involved administering toxic mercury to the patient indefinitely, giving rise to a popular quip about lovers spending “one night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.” Even as medical knowledge improved in the early 1900s, treatments still involved dire measures like taking arsenic or deliberately inoculating the patient with malaria, which would raise the body temperature and kill the syphilis. Thankfully, these scary treatments all went out the window with the introduction of penicillin in 1943.

8. Starvation Diets for Aneurysms

Doctors sought to treat early 20th century aneurysms by diminishing the force with which the heart pumped. One of the questionable regimens used to achieve this goal was known as Tuffnell’s diet, which consisted of bed rest and meager, dry rations. A 1901 medical text spelled out the treatment’s daily menus: Two ounces of bread and butter with two ounces of milk for breakfast, three ounces of meat and four ounces of milk or red wine for lunch, and two ounces of bread with two ounces of milk for dinner. Today many cases can be treated with minimally invasive surgeries.

9. Hydroelectric Baths for Migraines

Taking the toaster into the bathtub may be fatal today, but for several decades starting in the late 19th century, some doctors recommended treating chronic migraines by lounging in a hydroelectric bath – a warm tub with a small current passing through the water. Doctors eventually became skeptical of this method, and today’s migraine sufferers can turn to more effective pharmaceutical treatments.

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Cyber Monday has arrived, and with it comes some amazing deals. This sale is the one to watch if you are looking to get low prices on the latest Echo Dot, Fire Tablet, video games, Instant Pots, or 4K TVs. Even if you already took advantage of sales during Black Friday or Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday still has plenty to offer, especially on Amazon. We've compiled some the best deals out there on tech, computers, and kitchen appliances so you don't have to waste your time browsing.

Computers and tablets

Amazon

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet 64GB; $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 8 Tablet 64GB; $84 (save $35)

- HP Pavilion x360 14 Convertible 2-in-1 Laptop; $646 (save $114)

- HP Pavilion Desktop, 10th Gen Intel Core i3-10100 Processor; $469 (save $81)

- Acer Nitro 5 Gaming Laptop; $973 (save $177)

Headphones and speakers

Beats/Amazon

- Bose QuietComfort 35 II Wireless Bluetooth Headphones; $200 (save $100)

- Sony Bluetooth Noise-Canceling Wireless Headphones; $278 (save $72)

- JBL LIVE Wireless Headphones; $100 (save $30)

- JBL Charge 4 - Waterproof Portable Bluetooth Speaker; $120 (save $10)

- Bose SoundLink Color Bluetooth Speaker II; $79 (save $50)

- Powerbeats Pro Wireless Earphones; $200 (save $50)

Video Games

Sony

- Watch Dogs Legion; $30 (save $30)

- Marvel's Avengers; $27 (save $33)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

- The Last of Us Part II; $30 (save $30)

TECH, GADGETS, AND TVS

Samsung/Amazon

- Amazon Fire TV Stick; $30 (save $20)

- Echo Show 8; $65 (save $65)

- Nixplay Digital Picture Frame; $115 (save $65)

- eufy Smart Doorbell; $90 (save $30)

- Samsung 75-Inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $898 (save $300)

home and Kitchen

Ninja/Amazon

- T-fal 17-Piece Cookware Set; $124 (save $56)

- Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Curved Round Chef's Oven; $180 (save $136)

- Ninja Foodi 10-in-1 Convection Toaster Oven; $195 (save $105)

- Roborock E4 Robot Vacuum Cleaner; $189 (save $111)

- Instant Pot Max Pressure Cooker 9 in 1; $80 (save $120)

- Shark IZ362H Cordless Anti-Allergen Lightweight Stick Vacuum; $170 (save $110)

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

Why Do Hospital Doctors Wear White Coats?

Is your blood pressure rising?
Is your blood pressure rising?
Online Marketing, Unsplash

Many aspiring doctors dream of the day they can finally flaunt the ultimate symbol of medical legitimacy: the white coat. In fact, it’s such a significant piece of apparel that medical schools hold full ceremonies—aptly called “white coat ceremonies”—to mark the first time incoming students get to don the bright white attire.

But white jackets weren’t always the norm. If you’ve seen a few period dramas set in the 19th century or earlier, you might recall the family physician showing up in a smart black suit. According to Medelita, black made the most sense for figurative and literal reasons alike. Black apparel was considered formal and sober, so it matched the general tone of medical visits. It was also much easier to conceal splotches and stains on a dark garment than a light one.

By the late 19th century, however, doctors and scientists had begun to realize the importance of keeping facilities as clean as possible to prevent bacteria from growing and infectious diseases from spreading. The color white connoted cleanliness, and hospitals started transitioning to white sheets and white garb to reflect their crusade against germs.

As Dr. Mark S. Hochberg explained in a 2007 article for the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics [PDF], the color white stood for something else, too: truth and transparency. The word candor, meaning “frankness” and “freedom from mental bias,” derives from the Latin verb candere, which translates as “to be white and shining.”

Doctors’s sartorial shift from black to white took place pretty quickly, as evidenced by two paintings by American artist Thomas Eakins. In his 1875 work The Gross Clinic, Dr. Samuel Gross and his fellow physicians, all clad in black suits, perform surgery on a man’s leg. Less than 15 years later, Eakins painted The Agnew Clinic, which depicts a different group of doctors—this time, in white shirts and smocks—operating on another patient.

Thomas Eakins's Portrait of Dr. Samuel D. Gross, commonly known as The Gross Clinic, 1875.Philadelphia Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Thomas Eakins's The Agnew Clinic, 1889.Philadelphia Museum of Art, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Though white coats help doctors stand out in crowded hospitals, they’ve also been known to negatively affect patients. “White coat syndrome” or “white coat hypertension” describes the rise in blood pressure that some people experience when they step foot inside a doctor’s office or other clinical atmosphere. Some doctors, especially pediatricians, skip the coat at times to help put their patients at ease.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.