9 Terrifying Medical Treatments from 1900 and Their Safer Modern Versions
By Editorial Staff
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.
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.
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.