Old and Grim Medical Practices That Would Never Be Allowed Today

By: Kate Row | Published: Apr 12, 2022

Much with anything in the scientific or medical field, practices are built upon each other like stepping stones. Old practices that used to be seen as helpful or normal now look like some strange kind of torture tested on people unfortunate to have been born too soon in human history.

We’ve compiled a list of some of the strangest and creepiest medical practices while peering back from the fortunate lens of hindsight.

A Stretching Device for Appearance

This device looks like it has torturous intent, but men actually elected themselves to use it voluntarily. This stretching device claimed to increase height by five to 15 centimeters by lengthening out the spine

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Just as the knee and shoulder can be moved, so can the spine. This contraption is especially dangerous. 

Lobotomies in Mid-20th Century United States

You have probably heard of this terrifying trend in the United States in the mid-20th century. The lobotomy was the act of severing of the prefrontal lobe of the brain, thereby modifying behavior.

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It was performed over 18,000 times in the U.S. on veterans, political dissidents, prisoners, mental patients, and even poorly raised children.

Truth or Myth? Rabbit Waste as a Cure

Legend has it, the Old West would use rabbit waste as a cure for hangovers. The trick was to mix a few rabbit droppings in with tea and slurp it down.

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British Library

We aren’t absolutely sure that this was really a practice or not, but the myth must exist for a reason, so there is a chance Old Westerners were slurping on this disgusting tea.

Posing with the Dead

The Victorian Era had a term called “memento mori” which translates as “remember you’re going to die.” People in the Victorian Era had a practice of posing for photographs with their recently deceased family members.

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Generally, corpses were made up to look as though they were sleeping peacefully, especially in cases of children. In some cases, artists would paint pupils over the eyes of the dead to make it look like they were alive.

Treating Asthma with Cigarettes

Our collective knowledge about the dangers of smoking cigarettes is fairly new, although well known. It may come as a surprise to you that we once viewed smoking as a cure for asthma.

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During the late 19th and 20th century there were specially made cigarettes that were specifically prescribed to treat surffers of the common lung condition. The cigarettes contained stramonium, belladonna, and tobacco–all highly toxic.

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A Strange Solution for Health Palpitations

Any sufferer of heart palpitations is thrust into a vicious cycle, as the heart irregularities cause fear and the fear increases the palpitations. A British Evangelist named John Wesley came up with an incredibly simple (and deeply inaccurate) cure for any patient suffering from heart palpitations. 

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His idea was to drink a quart of cold water, apply a vinegar soaked cloth over the patient’s chest, and then electrocute said patient. Hmm….

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Rectal Dilators

Rectal dilators were thought to cure a very wide (pun apologetically intended)  array of ailments. From insanity to chronic constipation, these little dilators were supposed to really do the trick. They dominated the market in the 1800s.

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There was a puritanical outcry from people who thought that the rubber objects were being used for more “deviant” reasons. The use of the rectal dilators ended in the 1940s by order of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. 

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Radium as a Solution to Various Ailments

Radium was once used as a treatment for a variety of illnesses. It was used against ovarian cancer, arthritis, impotence, and even aging. In the early 20th century, Americans often used a ceramic water jug lined with radioactive materials called the Revigator.

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The device was filled with water a day ahead and then exposed to uranium and radium contained in the lining of the jug. The water was drunk the next day. Today, we know radium will kill you!

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Shock Me with Your Electric Feel

In the 1900s it was a common medical practice to place sufferers of rheumatism in a bizarre situation. Today, most of us are aware that the mixing of electricity and water is not a good idea, but back then, it was recommended.

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Doctors would submerge their patients limbs in tubs of water and run mild electric currents throughout the tubs in the hopes of relieving joint pain. 

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Heroin as a Cough Syrup

Once upon a time, heroin was trademarked by the German drug maker Bayer as a remedy for the common cough. The drug was marketed as a safer and more effective choice than other hardcore drugs on the market.

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Bayer introduced heroin to the market in 1898 and it could be purchased over the counter without a prescription. Today, heroin is viewed as one of the most troubling illegal drugs out there. 

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