These Medical Treatments Actually Used To Exist

We all know about leeches being used as a medicinal treatment way back when, don’t we? Thought so. That seems weird enough, but try and wrap your head around these then…

1. Bloodletting

Maggie Black’s “Den medeltida kokboken”, ISBN 91-7712-380-8. / Via

Bloodletting is a process that removes a large quantity of blood, often by making an incision in the forearm vein — but leeches and cupping were also used. Doctors believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of bodily fluids, and removing blood would restore that balance. Because, sure!

Bloodletting was used to treat everything from the plague and smallpox to epilepsy. The practice began with the Ancient Egyptians and remained a popular treatment well into the 19th century, despite significant scientific advances in medicine. It didn’t last in the 20th century, as doctors realized that blood loss only made patients sicker…or killed them. It’s also maybe the real reason George Washington died.

2. Trepanation

Hans von Gersdorff / Luciana Christante CC BY-NC-ND / Via Flickr: vivacomopuder

Peter Treveris / Luciana Christante CC BY-NC-ND / Via Flickr: vivacomopuder

Trepanation involves drilling or boring a small hole in the skull to expose the brain. Evidence shows that trepanning was around as early as the neolithic era and it was performed up until the 19th century — often without anesthesia or pain meds.

It was apparently used by both Western doctors and folk or religious practitioners to treat hysteria or psychosis. Doctors eventually realized this traumatic procedure wasn’t an effective psychiatric treatment, and it died out in the 1900s. Modern forms of trepanation still exist today, but neurosurgeons do it to temporarily relieve pressure in the brain from swelling or bleeding.

3. Cocaine


Smerdis of Tlön / Wikicommons / Via

Starting in 1860, cocaine was used as an anesthetic for pain, especially from tooth and gum diseases, but also to treat hay fever, alcoholism, and depression — Freud was known to prescribe it to his patients like candy. It was a pretty popular medicine until the early 1900s, when doctors realized it was incredibly addictive and led to the use of crack, cocaine’s cheaper and less pure cousin — and so it was banned as an illegal drug.

4. Hemiglossectomy


Mike Mols / Getty Images / Via

A hemiglossectomy is the removal of half or part of the tongue, which was done in the medieval era with crude instruments and no anesthesia. This traumatic surgery was believed to treat stuttering and other speech defects. Yes, practitioners thought cutting off half of the tongue would help speech issues.

The surgery declined in popularity by the 17th century because it was both ineffective and inhumane, but glossectomy surgeries are still sometimes used today to treat mouth cancer and other oral diseases.

5. Leeches

Karl Ragnar Gjertsen / Wikicommons /

Wellcome Images, London / Wikicommons / /

Leeches have been used to draw blood for thousands of years, starting with the ancient Egyptians and lasting through the 19th century. It was an alternative method of bloodletting that didn’t involve any incisions or invasive cutting. Doctors believed organ inflammation caused most illnesses and removing blood was the only cure, so they would place leeches on the part of the body where the organ was located (like the eyes, mouth, ears, vulva, or penis).

6. Lobotomy


Flickr user Digital Collections, UIC Library CC / Via Flickr: uicdigital

A frontal lobotomy involves cutting or scraping away the prefrontal cortex of the brain. It became popular in the 1940s and was widely used in mental hospitals and institutions to treat patients with schizophrenia, psychosis, OCD, and other disorders. It was actually shown to improve symptoms in the majority of patients, but it was also associated with complications and some deaths.

The lobotomy fad ultimately ended in the 1950s when doctors realized that many patients thought to be cured actually became vegetative and dependent. Besides, the medical world quickly realized there were more effective and humane therapies for mental illness. Not to mention, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was published.

7. Soothing Syrups (narcotic cocktails)

In the late 1800s, pharmacists patented soothing syrups for teething and restless children that included ingredients like morphine, codeine, cannabis, chloroform, meth, and alcohol. The doses were low enough to stop pain from teething and high enough to knock kids out, so mothers often used the syrups to put their fussy babies to sleep.

Not surprisingly, many babies and toddlers ended up overdosing, going into comas, or dying. So these syrups, like the very popular Mrs. Winslow’s, were removed from the market for good by the 1930s. Which is a good thing, because “sizzurp” pales in comparison to what the kids were sipping in 1900.

8. Heroin


Mpv_51 / Wikicommons / Via

In 1898, Bayer began marketing straight-up heroin as a cough suppressant. Really. It soon became a “wonder drug” because it worked even better than codeine in treating respiratory diseases like whooping cough, which was an epidemic at the time.

However, most patients quickly became addicted and by 1910, heroin was discovered by morphine addicts and became a staple of the illicit drug market. Bayer eventually jumped ship and in 1931 heroin was completely banned in the United States.

9. Arsenic


Arsenic, a well-known poison, was a popular medical treatment that started with the ancient Chinese and lasted up until the 20th century. The element is found naturally in groundwater, but it’s highly toxic in its inorganic form and can cause lesions, developmental defects, heart disease, or death. Still, it was used in low amounts to treat different cancers (such as prostate) and syphilis, and Victorian women even used it as a cosmetic.

It wasn’t until the U.S. Army used arsenic compounds to develop chemical warfare agents that arsenic was regulated and removed from the public market. However, arsenic trioxide (white arsenic) is still used by oncologists to treat some forms of leukemia.

10. The Electrical Belt

The Electrical Belt

Although electrotherapy is a legitimate medical treatment, it was used by “quack” practitioners to sell sham treatments like the electric belt, or Pulvermacher chain, created in 1850.

The belt used a chain battery to deliver electric currents and stimulation to the abdomen, which was said to promote digestion and treat erectile dysfunction. By the mid-1900s, it was a very popular weight-loss treatment among women who were told it would slim their midsections. The belt was phased out as an actual medical treatment in the 1950s, but modern variations are still marketed today for six-pack abs even though there’s 100 years of evidence to prove the belt is total BS.

Not too sure our Pharmacists of modern time would be too happy about these still being dished out to the sick. Especially some of the harder-hitting ones. Luckily that’s not how it is anymore, we even have Pharmacy Apprenticeships you can earn and learn on. Very nice. Here it is…



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