What do whale hotels, cat pianos, and malaria pills all have in common? They represent an era when medicine was less of a science and more of an art (for better or for worse). One of the things I do as a reference librarian is answer questions from researchers all over the world. This tends to be rewarding work and sometimes I even stumble across articles throughout history riddled with fun facts. So today, I’m going to share some stories I’ve found featuring some of the strangest medical (mal)practices of the past few centuries.
1. Milk transfusions
In the late 19th century, milk was believed to be the perfect substitute for blood, and the fatty/oily qualities would become white blood cells. However, while a few instances of this procedure were successful, many resulted in death. In one instance, the injection of milk dropped the patient’s pulse immediately, to the point where they had to be resuscitated with a combination of morphine and whiskey. The patient only lived ten days after the operation.
Here’s an advertisement promoting cigarettes as a cure for asthma. It’s common knowledge now that they do the opposite, and can cause asthma flare-ups. What’s interesting about this treatment is that it was already known that cigarettes had undesirable effects. In this article, Dr. W.A. Evans reported that, in an experiment conducted by researchers Parkinson and Koefod, the subjects became “breathless on exertion. Some have pains around the heart, some have palpitation, and others suffer from swimming in the head.”
3. Soothing Syrup
Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was a popular remedy for babies experiencing anything from teething to diarrhea. So what were the secret ingredients in these 25-cent cure-alls? According to this article, a heavy percentage of alcohol and morphine is the answer. Later on, this soothing syrup, along with others, was condemned. In this article, they are given the label “baby killers,” and the article advises that, “if you value your child’s health and life, never use any of these preparations.”
Another treatment that was believed to be a cure for asthma was chloroform. This article claims that one treatment with chloroform completely relieved all symptoms of asthma. This belief would eventually result in the deaths of patients who had overdosed during an asthma attack. Here’s one example of such an incident.
5. Cocaine for Hay Fever
Many believed that allergy symptoms caused by pollen (also known as hay fever) could be alleviated with the application of cocaine, as described in this article here. This was discovered to not be the case. Dr. George Frederick Laidlaw (a recognized leading pathologist of the homeopathic school in New York) is quoted in multiple articles saying, “If you can’t cure it without cocaine, you’d better keep the hay fever.” You can read one of those articles here.
This procedure involved the transplantation of the interstitielle gland from a chimpanzee into an 80-year-old man, in hopes of returning to him his physical vigor. This article details the procedure, quoting the inventor, Dr. Serge Voronoff, saying, “This gland, being vital to the male organism, it was naturally impossible to transfer from man to man. This led me to go to the nearest species of monkeys which has been used so successfully in thyroid experiments.” Later on, this procedure was debunked.
7. Malaria Pills
Professor Julius Wagner-Jauregg won a Nobel Prize in 1927 for this treatment of paresis. In the course of his research, he discovered that the condition of patients would improve after recovering from some disease that produced a fever. After World War II popularized the use of penicillin to treat syphilis, the pyrotherapy of the malaria pills was replaced.
8. Whale Hotel
This article from 1899 reports on a hotel in Australia where you could go for rheumatoid arthritis. In this treatment, whenever a nearby whale died, patients could be rowed to the whale. Then, the whale would be cut up, and a narrow hole made in the body. The patient would then lay down in the carcass for around two hours. This process allegedly relieved soreness and inflammation, and this may be the best part: the treatment was reported to be discovered by, “a drunken man, who was staggering along the beach near the whaling station at Twofold Bay, and who, seeing a dead whale cut open, took a header into the decomposing blubber.” You can read the full article here.
I’m adding this one because, while there’s no record of one being built, the theory was shocking to me as a cat father. The Katzenklavier would have the cats “in a row with their tails stretched behind them. And a keyboard fitted out with sharpened nails would be set over them. The struck cats would provide the sound. A fugue played on this instrument–when the ill person is so placed that he cannot miss the expression on their faces and the play of these animals–must bring Lot’s wife herself from her fixed state into conscious awareness.” I found that translation of the entry at this link here, but you can read the original German text here.
10. Smoke Enemas
Tobacco smoke enemas were considered a successful treatment for cholera and were recommended as an alternative remedy to opium. The exact procedure varied, and in some instances a pint of boiling, tobacco-infused water was administered into the intestines. It was even reported that “hundreds of lives might have been spared by the tobacco enema.”
Be sure to visit Chronicling America* to find more on these treatments or more we can add to this list.
- Search Chronicling America for additional newspaper coverage of strange medical procedures, and let us know what you find in the comments!
- Early Patent Medicines: Topics in Chronicling America: a research guide from the Serials and Government Publications Division of the Library of Congress.
- Catarrh Remedy and Peruna Scandal: Topics in Chronicling America: a research guide from the Serials and Government Publications Division of the Library of Congress.
- Hypnotism: Topics in Chronicling America: a research guide from the Serials and Government Publications Division of the Library of Congress.
*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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