No one likes to be sick or suffering. But in the course of trying to find new cures for medical problems, or perceived medical problems, weâve stumbled more than a few times. Most of the time, treatments simply didn’t work and were no more harmful than what they were meant to âcure.â Sometimes, though, the medicine was even worse than the condition itself.
To his credit, Pliny the Elder discounted many purely magical folk cures in his Natural Histories (not to mention writing entire chapters against the eating of infant brains). He was also a proponent of several treatments which we now know to have some merit, such as aloe vera to dress burns.
Still, his advice was often more questionable than credible. His cures for bites from a mad (rabid) human or dog were the sameâraw veal or she-goat dung placed over the wound for no less than four days, while the patient takes only lime and hogâs fat internally. If this doesnât sound so bad, imagine eating nothing but antacids and lard, while having an open wound get more and more infected. If you werenât dead by the time the rabies actually manifested, you probably wished you were.
Hit them with a book. A heavy book. The use of Bibles to cure ganglion cysts provided the colloquial terms for this benign lump on the hand or wrist: Bible cysts, Gideonâs disease, or Bible bumps.
Really, you shouldnât do this, however. While in some circumstances the lump may disappear or be reabsorbed after being thwacked, this method of treatment is second only to puncturing them in an unsterile environment when it comes to causing recurrence and complications. Most ganglion cysts cause no complications on their own, and many will disappear after a few months if left alone [PDF].
Drapetomania and dysaethesia aethiopica were two different but related âconditionsâ that one Samuel Cartwright saw as prevalent among slaves during the mid-19th century. Drapetomania supposedly caused an âinsanityâ that drove slaves to run away, while dysaethesia aethiopica caused âpartial numbness of the skin,â and âgreat hebetudeâ (mental dullness and lethargy).
To cure either condition, you needed only to whip the patient. The concept caught on in the South, as it lent an air of science and self-justification to slave ownersâCartwrightâs work suggested that the only moral thing to do was to keep slaves in their place for their own good, lest they become afflicted with one of these conditions (he noted how âcommonâ dysaethesia aethiopica was among âFree Negrosâ). Of course, this quackery was not hard to spot by his contemporaries outside of the South. Frederick Douglass once sarcastically remarked that, since white indentured servants run away, too, âdrapetomaniaâ was probably a European condition that had been introduced to Africans by white slave traders.
Smoke a cigarette! Not a tobacco cigarette (though those were advertised as âhealthyâ for decades), but an herbal remedy. While a few components of these cigarettes may have caused a degree of temporary relief for those with bronchitis or asthma, the long-term effects of smoking anything are known to be detrimental, especially to those whose lungs are already diseased.Â
Long-term effects aside, many of the âasthma cigarettesâ contained ingredients that were immediately and seriously harmful. Several brands boasted adding arsenic to their papers. Two of the staple ingredients for many companies were stramonium, an extract from the deadly Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) plant, and belladonna, extracted from deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna).
âMorphinism,â or morphine addiction, was perceived to be such a pervasive habit, and seen as such a scourge in polite society, that quack cures and treatments were easy to convince people to try, and rarely got reported or noticed when they didnât work.
While unlabeled patent medicines in the U.S. were forced to reveal their ingredients after the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, many dangerous concoctions were still sold and advertised falsely. The tale of Bayerâs Heroin being used to âcureâ morphine addiction (with a much more addictive and refined opiate) is pretty well-known, but it never caught on as much as Habitina (also known as Morphina-Cura) did. Habitina became known for its paid testimonials and dodgy advertising claims (âNon-Addictive! Cures the morphine habit!â), and was one of the most significant examples of the shortcomings of the Pure Food and Drug Act.
Habitina not only didn’t give the patient a cure, it combined the worst sides of the pharmaceutical industry into one bottleâits main ingredients were morphine sulfate (does it count as a cure if you call the same drug by a different name?), heroin, and caffeine.
âThe Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Offâ has to be one of the best Wall Street Journal headlines of all time. The âradium waterâ in question was called Radithor, and the jaw in question belonged to one Eben Byers: industrialist, socialite, and amateur golf champion.
Radium and radiation were all the rage around the turn of the 20th century. People who went to natural hot springs seemed âinvigorated and renewed,â and scientists noted that many of these natural springs were high in naturally-occurring radon. The radon seemed to be to water what oxygen was to air; without it, water was âdead.â Looking to profit off of this discovery, companies first bottled water directly from the springs, and later produced âinvigoratingâ crocks (containing internal radon discs or coatings) to irradiate water. Just fill the crock before you go to sleep, and have healthy, stimulating water all day long!
Unfortunately for those who consumed the radon, the radiation in the water did the opposite of what it was supposed to do. Eben Byers bought into the claims, and drank three bottles of Radithor a day, beginning in 1930. In 1932, his teeth began to fall out, holes began to appear in his jaw, and he became generally unwell. He was dying of aggressive cancer brought on by the radon (not radiation poisoning, as is commonly believed, but still directly attributable to the Radithor). He died at age 51 and was buried in a lead-lined coffin. His was one of the cases used to substantially increase the FDAâs ability to regulate medical claims, when the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act passed.
Some people will do anything to get their âpotencyâ back, and there are plenty of people out there who are willing to take advantage of that. John R. Brinkley was one of the myriad snake-oil salesmen at the turn of the century, but a medical degree bought from a diploma mill led the now-âDr.â Brinkley to pursue grander matters.
Early on in Brinkleyâs career, Bill Stittsworth, a farmer with âno lead in his pencil, no powder in his pistolâ consulted him. The story goes that Brinkley jokingly remarked that it was too bad the farmer didnât have the glands of the frisky billy goats outside, but Stittsworth, taking Brinkley seriously, said âDoctor, I want you to transplant [the goat glands] into me.â The doctor did as much, and nine months later, Bill Stittsworthâs wife reportedly bore a son, appropriately named âBilly.â
Seeing the potential to profit from this venture, John Brinkley set up a major advertising campaign centered on âBilly,â and âgoat-gland transplantationâ took off. Over 16,000 men had their scrotums cut open and tissue plugs from the goat testicles inserted. In the best-case scenario, the menâs bodies simply broke down the goat tissues and healed up, but many patients werenât so lucky.
The fact that Brinkley was a mediocre medical man at best led to dozens of deaths that were directly attributable to his operation, but hundreds more are believed to have been killed by infection, gangrene, or surgical mishaps. Those deaths also helped lead to the revocation of Brinkleyâs license to practice medicine in Kansas in 1930. Unfortunately for the easily swayed, he remained in the goat-gland business for another decade in Texas.
The 1950s were an era of innovation, new discoveries, and excitement about the potential that science had to improve our lives. Drug companies were thriving on this outlook, and developing cures for even the smallest of ailments. Sleeplessness was a major problem, according to contemporary doctors, but the only reliable sedatives were barbiturates, which had a host of known addiction problems and side effects.
In 1957, the German drug company Grunenthal developed a non-barbiturate, non-habit-forming sleep aid called Thalidomide. It was sold over the counter, and touted as âsafe for everyone.â Grunenthalâs adverts boasted that they could not find a dose high enough to kill a rat. By 1960, its sales in Europe and the Commonwealth countries nearly matched that of aspirin. Down in Australia, Dr. William McBride noticed that women who took the drug were often alleviated of their morning sickness, and sales boomed even higher.
It was too good to be true. By 1961, babies were beginning to be born to mothers who had taken Thalidomide in early pregnancy. Many of them had shortened or absent âflipperâ limbs. Dr. McBride realized his mistake, and did everything he could to retract his endorsements of the drug, but it was too late for over 12,000 infants. By 1961, the drug was pulled off the market, but Grunenthal offered no recompense or statement regarding its inadequate testing and irresponsible promotion.
Interestingly, the story of Thalidomide had a rather different turn in the United States. Though it technically passed the requirements of the FDA testing authority at the time, FDA inspector Frances Kelsey would not approve its distribution. Ms. Kelsey felt the company provided insufficient data on the efficacy and safety of the drug on its applications, and despite pressure from pharmaceutical companies and other FDA supervisors, she refused to budge on the issue. President John F. Kennedy eventually heralded her as a heroine, after the scandal of the âThalidomide babiesâ broke overseas.
This incident further strengthened the testing requirements of the FDA, and greatly increased the oversight and regulation of equivalent organizations in other countries. Interestingly, Thalidomide is once again being used as a drug, albeit with extreme restrictions on who can take it. Itâs a chemotherapeutic agent that has significant benefits for multiple myeloma patients, and it has also been used in the treatment of Hansenâs disease (leprosy). Patients on the drug must have pregnancy tests and use reliable contraception if they are sexually active, and must not become pregnant within 4 weeks of coming off the drug.
This story first ran in 2013.