10 Strange Medical Practices from History

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.

Text depicts subheading, “Medicine and Surgery” and includes the following text: “Dr. Bovell has published a communication on the transfusion of milk as a substitute of blood in cholera. To obtain a supply of blood for transfusion is of course at any time very difficult, and especially so during an epidemic, at which season no one would like to take so much blood from a healthy person as would be needed for fear of inducing disease. Chemical mixtures to resemble the blood have been tried in England, but these lack the impress of vitality. Milk on the other hand, while closely allied to blood, has this connection with life, and has been used in a number of cases of collapsed patients, with gross benefit, even securing recovery in a…” End of text.

“Medicine and Surgery,” The Ashland Union (Ashland, OH), May 09, 1855.

2.    Cigarettes

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.”

Heading reads, “Relief for Hay Fever, Asthm$1.20 Page’s Asthma Cigarettes…89c.”

“Relief for Hay Fever, Asthma and Rose Fever,” The Indianapolis Times (Indianapolis, IN), August 17, 1923.

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.”

Image depicts a woman in a chair holding an infant she is giving the medicine to, a child is by her side. Text surrounding the image reads, “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup should always be used for children teething. It soothes the child, softens the gums, allays all pain, cures wind colic, and is the best remedy for diarrhoea. Twenty-five cents a bottle.” On either side of the image, it lists the years 1840 and 1908.

“Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup,” Palisadian (Cliffside Park, NJ), July 01, 1907.

4.    Chloroform

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.

Heading reads “Death was accidental” sub-heading “Finding of Coroner’s Jury in Case of Mrs. Pierson. Overdose of Chloroform.” Text reads, “It had been taken to relieve the pain following a very sever attack of asthma.”

“Death was Accidental,” Arizona Republican (Phoenix, AZ), June 27, 1911.

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.

Heading reads “Cocaine in Hay Fever”. Text includes an article the therapeutical uses of cocaine, including hay fever

“Cocaine in Hay Fever,” Savannah Morning (Savannah, GA), August 5, 1885.

6.    Xenotransplantation

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.

Image shows a photo of Dr. Serge Voronoff with the headline “Youth Fountain is Dry.” The sub-heading reads, “Dr. Serge Voronoff Admits Glands Won’t Keep One Young.” The article says, “Paris, Jan. 25- It seems that the fountain of youth, believed found, is lost once more. Dr. Serge Voronoff, famous gland specialist, admits that gland operations will not restore lost youth. The rejuvenating effect of new glands lasts only for four or five years, he explains.”

“Youth Fountain is Dry,” Indianapolis Times (Indianapolis, IN), January 25, 1929.

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.

Article title is, “Artificial Fever”. Text reads, “Whitney’s head buzzed with excitement of this thing. He called in Dr. Charles M. Carpenter, a medical man, and they went over it together. In the first place, what was a fever? Simply an effort of the body to throw off infection. They knew that Julius Wagner-Jauregg in Vienna had treated paresis patients by deliberately infecting them with malaria. The malaria-induced fever sometimes killed the heat-sensitive syphilis microbe. The idea worked well in many cases. In others death resulted.”

“Artificial Fever,” Evening Star (Washington DC), March 16, 1941.

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.

Headline featured reads, “Whale Cure for Rheumatism”.

“Whale Cure for Rheumatism,” The Pacific Commercial Advertiser (Honolulu, HI), April 12, 1899.

9.    Katzenklavier

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.

Image features an artist’s rendition of a woman playing the Katzenklavier, which resembles a keyboard with six cats connected to the back end.

 ”Un piano du chats” La Nature, vol. 11, no.541 (1883), p.320.

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.”

Heading reads, “Meningitis Cured by a New and Successful Agent. Text reads, “Dr. E.N. Calhoun, physician to Fulton county jail. Visited a negro fellow confined in the dungeon, who was suddenly stricken down with this painful malady and remaining twenty-six hours severely convulsed, at which time the Doctor administered tobacco enema, and continued it as necessity seemed to indicate for three days, at which time he was entirely relieved. His opinion is that it is the only reliable remedy for this disease.-Atlanta Constitution.

“Meningitis Cured by a New and Successful Agent,” The Charlotte Democrat (Charlotte, NC), January 18, 1872.

Be sure to visit Chronicling America* to find more on these treatments or more we can add to this list.

Discover more:

*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.

Follow Chronicling America on Twitter @ChronAmLOC

Click here to subscribe to Headlines & Heroes–it’s free!

2 Comments

  1. Jason
    April 27, 2022 at 1:47 pm

    I have to show my ID to get Sudefed and in 1885 some dude in a wagon rolls down the street, “Gentle sir, tell that hay fever to be gone with Cocaine! Good sir, this harmless powder when applied to the nasal mucous membrane, the nose for the layman, will make the hay fever disappear and give you back your normal viv and vigour.”

  2. Leigh Jarvis
    May 1, 2022 at 4:00 pm

    Perhaps the list could be expanded to 11, by adding former President Trump’s suggestion of injecting and ingesting Lysol as a treatment for Covid-19.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.