We should thank our lucky stars that we live in a time where modern technology can discover illnesses years before they happen and modern medicinal practices can cure some of the toughest ailments out there. We might not have a cure for the big C yet, but every year we make leaps and bounds in the medical world, doing some truly fascinating things.
By contrast, in ancient times there was a lot of trial and error - with some very dire consequences. The basic concepts of anatomy and biology that we know now were frightfully misunderstood, and it led to some truly bizarre ways of curing illnesses and diseases.
From elixirs made from unbelievable specimens, to gruesome surgeries that became the predecessors to the highly technical and complex surgeries we do today, all of our understanding of medicine and health had to start somewhere!
Here are 18 crazy things that ancient societies did to improve “health.”
Bloodletting has a 3000-year history, which only fell out of favor at the end of the 19th century. Ancient doctors believed that the body was governed by “bodily humors”: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. To balance those humors when someone fell ill, they’d get rid of “excess” blood by opening a vein. Doctors in ancient Greece, Egypt, and Europe used bloodletting for everything from fever, infection, acne, headaches, diabetes, epilepsy, and more.
Since antiquity, leeching has been used for therapeutic purposes— up until the late 19th century, and was a favored means of bloodletting. In order to balance a person’s unbalanced blood, leeches were frequently used as the instrument of choice for the operation, with surgeons using the nasty creatures for their natural blood-sucking capabilities. It wasn’t until the 19th century that doctors agreed leeches were causing more harm than good.
16 Using Animal Dung
Numerous ancient civilizations used animal dung for all sorts of medicinal purposes. Ancient Egyptians would rub it on wounds, in their eyes, and even use dung as a contraceptive. Crocodile dung was used as a proto-diaphragm to prevent pregnancy. It was ineffective, and might have even increased the odds of conception. Ancient Scots used pig dung to stop nosebleeds. Fecal transplants are a real thing in modern medicine, but it’s very rare, and much different from how ancient cultures used it.
Trepanning, or trepanation, is one of humanity’s oldest forms of surgery, and one of the ugliest. As far back as 7,000 years ago, cultures would engage in trepanation— the practice of boring holes in the skulls of people as a means of curing illnesses. What began as a tribal ritual became a surgical practice, as a method to release evil spirits thought to possess the sick and mentally ill. More conventionally (but arguably less effectively), trepanning was used to treat epilepsy, headaches, abscesses, and blood clots.
14 Urine Ammonia
Humans have tried using feces for medicinal purposes, so it’s no surprise they’ve also used urine. Heck, even Madonna has claimed that urine cures athlete’s foot. Ancient Romans used a urine ammonia to help lift stains, and also as a teeth whitener! For other cultures, urine ammonias have been used to treat a wide spectrum of ailments, as cleaning agents, as face wash, and as a tool for diagnosing more serious problems.
13 Arsenic Solutions
Today, we know arsenic is one of the deadliest elemental poisons around, but it can also be used for good. During the 1800s to 1900s, medicinal arsenic popped up again in pharmacies as a beauty product for skin and hair. The naturally occurring compound has been used to fight leukemia and other cancers. In older cultures, it’s been used to treat psoriasis, syphilis, trypanosomiasis, ulcers, abscesses, fevers, and headaches.
12 Coca Leaves
We all know about cocaine being used in Coca-Cola and other products as late as the late 19th century, but indigenous peoples of South America have used coca leaves for thousands of years for providing vital nutrients and alkaloids. There’s also evidence that ancient societies used a mixture of coca leaves and saliva as an anesthetic before performing trepanation. In 1609, Padre Blas Valera wrote, “Coca protects the body from many ailments, and our doctors use it in powdered form to reduce the swelling of wounds, to strengthen broken bones, to expel cold, to cure rotten wounds…”
11 Mouse Paste
In one of the grossest medicinal procedures, the ancient Egyptians used a paste made up of crushed mice as a treatment for toothaches and other maladies. The “mouse cream” was added to an afflicted area to cure infection— although causing infection was more likely. The practice ceased, but amazingly, it was revitalized in Elizabethan England when scientists believed the application of a deceased mouse could help alleviate warts.
10 Teeth Cutting
Another brutal medical practice is the surgical quality of cutting open a teething infant’s gums to help encourage growth. This dates back to the 1500s in France, where a surgeon named Paré observed a case of a teething infant dying. He concluded the child’s untimely passing was due to incoming teeth being obstructed, and thus the phenomenon began, and much of Europe followed along.
9 Using Animal Bile
Ancient doctors have used animal dung, so why not try animal bile, too? Not only is bile two of the four bodily humors, but the greenish-brown substance in the gallbladder also helps break down food. Elephant bile was used to treat bad breath, and the ancient Chinese used recipes including dog, ox, and carp bile. The ingestion of bile can lead to nausea, gastrointestinal issues, and even death with chronic consumption.
A hemiglossectomy is a medical procedure in which you cut off part of someone’s tongue. This nasty practice dates back to the 1700s. This partial removal was performed to curtail malignant growths and oral cancers— and it’s still used today, but in much rarer cases and with greater care. The procedure was also used to correct stutters and other speech disorders, but this is medically unsound and only created a host of other speech and health issues.
7 Mercury Use
Nowadays, we know mercury for its toxic properties, but it was once used as a common elixir and topical medicine. Ancient Persians and Greeks used it as an ointment, and Chinese alchemists prized liquid mercury, or “quicksilver,” for the ability to increase lifespan and vitality. Some healers believed that by consuming a potion of mercury, sulfur, and arsenic, one would gain eternal life and the ability to walk on water! With those three deadly poisons combined, we doubt anyone stayed afloat for long.
6 “Corpse Medicine”
Using so-called “corpse medicine” was a disgusting practice used for centuries, wherein physicians would use an elixir containing human flesh, blood, or bone to cure anything from headaches to muscle cramps to stomach ulcers. Ancient Romans believed the blood of fallen gladiators could cure epilepsy. 12th-century apothecaries often kept a stock of “mummy powder,” and in the 1600s, King Charles II of England was known to drink “King’s Drops” for its restorative properties— made from crumbled human skull and alcohol.
5 Therapeutic Womb Baths
Ancient Greeks believed that a woman’s womb was a separate creature from a woman, with a mind of its own. They believed that longstanding celibate women who then become pregnant has her uterus become a “living animal,” which could dislodge and cause suffocation, seizures, and hysteria. To prevent the womb from walking around, ancient women were counseled to marry young and bear many children, and were prescribed therapeutic baths, infusions, and massages— such as “fumigating” a woman’s head with pitch and sulfur, while rubbing pleasant-smelling lotions between her thighs.
4 Babylonian Skull Magic
As you can tell, we’re getting to the real weird stuff here: ancient Babylonians believed that most illnesses were the product of demonic forces or gods punishing people for past misdeeds. These priests or exorcists (or “doctors”) would recommend a patient who grinds his teeth at night to sleep next to a human skull for a week to exorcise the spirit. To ensure that the teeth grinding stopped, they would be instructed to kiss and lick the skull seven times each night.
3 Unorthodox Breast Implants
Though this wasn’t very “medicinal,” and was largely cosmetic in practice, ancient cultures still did what they could to increase their busts long before before silicone implants. This included using ivory, glass balls, ground rubber, & other fillers. Some massaged coconut oil into their skin, and some women put tropical treatments, or “growth creams,” on their breasts to make them bigger (probably through irritation more than anything else.)
2 Garlic Pregnancy Test
In ancient times, doctors didn’t know why some women could get pregnant and some couldn’t. They used several “natural” methods to test for pregnancy. In 1350 BC, a woman was advised to moisten a wheat seed with urine, and if the seed sprouted, she was pregnant. Another test was to place a clove of garlic or onion in her vagina, and if the women’s breath smelled like garlic the next morning, she was pregnant!
1 Public Toilet Sponges
In ancient Rome, where almost everything was public, most people attended public baths and toilets. These public lavatories were made from long rows of stone or wood with a hole cut every few feet, and the natural running river underneath would flush everything out. The people used exfoliating cleansers or toilet sponges to… take care of business while they were taking care of business. Remember, this was loooong before toilet paper or bidets!
Sources: history.com, ranker.com, brightside.me, indiana.edu