Humans have sought to prevent and treat disease since time immemorial. But it is only relatively recently that scientists and doctors have developed the means to better understand the causes of diseases and to test the effectiveness of remedies. For centuries, doctors and healers around the world have often prescribed treatments that not only did not help, but actually hurt patients.
âA lot of it comes from not understanding how the human body works and not having a good concept of modern pharmacology,â says Lydia Kang, an Omaha, Nebraska-based physician and co-author of Charlatanism: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. “Without those two headlights guiding you, you’re kind of frolicking in the dark trying this or that to see what works.”
Over the past century or so, scientific process, germ theory, the discovery of penicillin, and more have changed the tune of medicine, rendering many bogus remedies obsolete. Here are some of the more harmful and sometimes deadly examples that Kang has unearthed during his research, however. Quackery.
Mercury has been ubiquitously prescribed to treat a range of illnesses, from melancholy and constipation to syphilis and the flu. The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, turned to mercury for the purpose of living forever – to die of it. âIt was his attempt to become immortal, and it did the absolute opposite,â Kang says. Later, the mercury prescribed for toothache in infants caused an outbreak of a condition called Pink’s disease, in which a child’s skin swelled and cracked. By the 1950s, physicians had finally adopted and removed mercury-based drugs from the pharmacopoeias.
Arsenic was sometimes referred to as “the heirloom powder” and “the poison of kings” for its use as an assassination tool to claim royal thrones. But throughout the 19th century, the highly toxic natural chemical was also used to treat fever, upset stomach, syphilis, rheumatism, parasitic infections and more. If taken in sublethal amounts over time, arsenic can cause heart problems, cancer, and possibly death. In children, it also causes cognitive problems. Today, arsenic is still used to treat acute promyelocytic leukemia, and another toxic arsenic compound (Melarsoprol) is sometimes given for advanced stage African sleeping sickness.
Antimony, a soft, grayish metal, became a preferred remedy around 3000 BCE for practitioners of humor, a system of medicine that postulated that health depends on the balance of key bodily fluids. When ingested, antimony causes intense vomiting, so users have taken it to lower their bile levels. Antimony-based âvomit chalicesâ were popular in the 17th century, and some families even handed out âeternal pillsâ of antimony – repeatedly collected from vomiting or diarrhea – from generation to generation. Scientists later learned that in addition to sometimes causing kidney failure and fatal seizures, antimony is carcinogenic.
Marie Curie and her husband discovered radium in 1898. The Curies and others became interested in the medical applications of the radioactive element, which they regarded as literally promising, after observing that tumors were shrinking in its presence. Radium “was very trendy,” says Kang. By the 1930s, however, the market for radium products had collapsed due to high-profile deaths linked to this carcinogen – including, in 1934, the death of Curie himself. Radium is still used in a controlled manner today to treat certain types of prostate cancer.
People have used cocaine as a stimulant since 3000 BCE. In the 19th century, cocaine was available in over-the-counter medications, including as a topical anesthetic and as an ingredient in infant teething syrups. The first recipe for Coca-Cola, introduced to the market in 1886, also included cocaine. Although cocaine in small amounts is not toxic, it is addictive and can cause short and long term health problems ranging from headaches and heart disease to lung damage and loss of smell. Acute cocaine poisoning can cause seizures, heart attacks and death. As Kang says, âAlmost anything can be toxic; it just depends on how you use it and the dose.
In small amounts, strychnine can act as a short-term stimulant. In the 19th century, medical students took it up as a sort of Adderall of the day, and by the turn of the 20th century, it briefly saw popularity as an energy drink. In 1904, American Olympic runner Thomas Hicks took two doses of strychnine given to him by his coaches during a marathon. Hicks almost died, but he won the race. Strychnine tonics – famously consumed by Adolf Hitler – remained in vogue until the 1970s, when the toxic alkaloid was finally withdrawn from medical use. But strychnine is always tested before athletic competitions to make sure it is not used for doping.
As early as 2500 BCE, Chinese healers associated gold consumption with longevity. Following this line of thought, the medieval alchemists of the 14th century created drinkable gold, which, according to the 16th century Swiss physician Paracelsus, made the body “indestructible” and cured mania and epilepsy. In fact, drinking gold was toxic and was subsequently linked to kidney damage. Until the 19th century, however, gold continued to be touted as a cure for syphilis and alcoholism.
Eating the dead is not necessarily toxic, but it can be unhealthy, increase the risk of infectious disease, and provide no medicinal value. Yet for centuries parts of the body and blood have been used in medical remedies. After the hanging executions in England, passers-by rubbed their wounds against the hanging corpse in an attempt to capture its healing power, and the executioners harvested human skin and fat and crushed it to sell as “human fat.” “. From the 16th to the late 18th century, a lucrative international mummy trade fueled a craze for the powdered mummy, ingested in capsule form and seen as “a sovereign remedy that could fix just about anything,” Kang explains. Due to the scarcity of ancient mummies, a counterfeit mummy industry arose, in which fraudsters sold earth in a jar or pieces of fresher corpses. As Kang says, “There was definitely a fake mom going around.”