In this Spotlight, we cover five unusual — and rather unsavory — treatments that were common in days gone by. Though each is horrid in its own way, they remind us of how far we have come.

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Medical knowledge has been hard won.

Medical science has scurried somewhat eagerly along the corridors of human well-being for millennia.

For as long as we have endured ailments, we’ve made attempts to rid ourselves of them.

A powerful trio of hard graft, deep thinking, and serendipity has forged the course of medical history.

However, along the way, there have also been horror, errors, strange decisions, and brutality.

The road to modern medicine has not been entirely smooth, but it has not been boring, either. So, without further ado, let us take a painful wander down a blood-soaked memory lane.

In the late 1700s, tobacco started to arrive on English shores from the Americas. Along with it came the idea that, when used as an enema, tobacco smoke could cure a wide range of ailments. As the name suggests, a tobacco smoke enema involves literally blowing smoke up the patient’s rectum.

The so-called pipe smoker London Medic would use the technique on those who fell into the river Thames and were near-drowned. Tobacco smoke enemas were thought to both warm the patient from within and stimulate respiration. The Royal Human Society left resuscitation kits — including the equipment necessary to carry out a tobacco enema — at certain points along the river.

One particularly graphic description from 1746 is described in a paper published in The Lancet. “A man’s wife was pulled from the water apparently dead,” it says.

“Amid much conflicting advice, a passing sailor proffered his pipe and instructed the husband to insert the stem into his wife’s rectum, cover the bowl with a piece of perforated paper, and ‘blow hard.’ Miraculously, the woman revived.”

Word of their benefits quickly spread, and people were soon using tobacco smoke enemas to treat everything from headaches and abdominal cramps to typhoid and cholera.

As people were using the tobacco enema to treat increasingly serious diseases, the danger to the “medic” also increased.

For instance, if a practitioner were to accidentally breathe in rather than blow out — perhaps during a bout of tobacco-induced coughing — cholera flagellates could pass into their lungs and inflict them, fatally. Thankfully, the introduction of bellows made the job slightly less hazardous.

In the early 1800s, tobacco was shown to cause damage to the heart, and the tobacco enema fad thankfully began to decline.

In the old days, infant mortality was sky high; and much of the time, the reason for death was wholly unknown.

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Teething used to be considered much more dangerous than it is today.

Children frequently died at 6 months to 2 years of age, which, coincidentally, was around the time their first teeth were coming through.

The medical minds of the day thought this might not be a simple coincidence, so they concluded that the process of teething was also the cause of infant death.

In England and Wales in 1839, for instance, over 5,000 deaths were attributed to teething. Even by 1910, the figure was 1,600.

So, how did physicians combat the evils of teething? Unfortunately for those children involved, they developed a wide array of interventions, including bleeding, blistering, and placing leeches on the gums. In some cases, they even burned the back of the baby’s head.

During the 16th century, French surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510–1590) introduced gum lancing, and this became the preferred method. A paper published in The Lancet explains just how popular lancing baby’s gums became:

John Hunter (1728–93) would lance a baby’s gums ‘up to 10 times.’ J Marion Sims (1813–83) treated his first patient, a baby of 18 months old: ‘as soon as I saw some swelling of the gums, I at once took out my lancet and cut the gums down to the teeth.'”

The author continues, “The physician Marshall Hall (1790–1857) wrote that he would rather lance a child’s gums 199 times unnecessarily than omit it once if necessary and he instructed his students to do it before, during, and after the teeth appeared, sometimes twice a day.”

It is as yet unknown how many children died from infections that likely developed following such procedures.

Lancing petered out, but it did not disappear for a surprisingly long time. Even as late as 1938, a dentistry textbook offered instructions for gum lancing a teething child.

If nothing else, this chapter is a reminder of how barbaric humans can be without the slightest intention of being so.

Today, urine has few everyday uses — which is a shame considering its wide availability. In Roman times, however, it was a different story.

Urine was such a popular commodity that people collected it from public urinals; there was even a tax to pay for those who profited from the sale of this golden liquid. Many of urine’s uses were nonmedical, such as the production of gunpowder or to soften leather.

One less savory use for urine, however, was as a tooth whitener. The ammonia allegedly helps clear teeth of their stains. I imagine it would do nothing to reduce morning breath, though.

Apparently, leaving the urine to fester for some time gives the urea time to convert into ammonia, which is an antibacterial and bleaching agent used in household cleaning products.

It was not only the Ancient Romans who used this teeth-whitening method; throughout history, it has been used by a number of people and, even today, some are tempted to give it a try. Note: Medical News Today do not recommend this as an intervention.

In short, trepanning is the process of boring a hole into somebody’s skull. It sounds as brutal as it is.

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Hieronymus Bosch’s depiction of trepanning in his painting ‘The Stone Cutting.’ Image credit: Hieronymus Bosch via Wikimedia Commons.

Scientists have unearthed skulls bearing tell-tale holes from the Neolithic period onward.

Many consider trepanning the earliest surgery for which there is archeological evidence.

Trepanning was popular, too: an incredible 5–10 percent of all Neolithic skulls that scientists have so far dug up bear all the unmistakable marks of trepanning.

From ancient remains, it’s not always possible to tell whether the surgery was carried out before or after death — but some patients certainly were alive.

Against all odds, some ancient patients managed to survive the process. We know this because the skulls show evidence that healing had occurred.

Though mostly carried out on adult males, scientists have also found trepanning holes in the skulls of women and children.

During Neolithic times, the practice was — perhaps surprisingly — widespread. From a period when long-distance travel and the exchange of ideas was limited, experts have unearthed skulls bearing the marks of trepanning in Europe, Siberia, China, and the Americas; it was all the rage.

Trepanning did not die out with the Stone Age; it carried on through the classical period, and even as far as the Renaissance.

Today, similar surgical procedures still exist; but, as you might imagine, they involve a little more finesse and a lot more anesthetic.

For instance, specialists use craniotomies to treat some hematomas (wherein blood builds up between the skull, the brain, and the membranes in-between).

Coughs are common, annoying, and can ruin your day. Because of this, scientists designed various concoctions over the centuries to ward them off. However, it became increasingly clear that cough medicines do little, if anything, to soothe a cough.

One concoction that German drug company Bayer marketed held a particularly potent ingredient: heroin. The inclusion of this highly addictive substance was meant to replace opium, which had become a popular drug of abuse.

This over-the-counter (OTC) drug was promoted as including a “non-addictive morphine substitute.” Although it soon became clear that heroin was incredibly addictive, too, the drug was marketed in 1898–1910.

In 1924, though, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned heroin from being sold, imported, and manufactured.

The question is, did heroin work any better than modern OTC cough suppressants? It appears not.

That brings us to the end of today’s cabaret of horrors. However, before we become too content with today’s comparative medical wisdom, here’s my final thought: when we look back at today’s medical practices in 100 years’ time, what current procedures, drugs, behaviors, or therapies will send us reeling with shock?

Only 20 years ago, it was normal to smoke cigarettes in restaurants, driving under the influence of alcohol was a common occurrence until the 1970s, and, in the 1960s, pregnant women regularly drank alcohol and smoked. What are we doing now that will surprise us in a few decades?

Humans are excellent at assuming that they have finally got it all worked out; but we never have.