Deadlier Than Disease: Historical Health Practices Gone Wrong

By Jack Ripley | April 11, 2024

Trepanning: From Ancient Skull Surgery to Modern Medical Practices

Medical history is littered with unsettling practices, and this look into the curious and sometimes macabre world of remedies and treatments from bygone eras will make you thank your lucky stars that you're alive in the 21st century.

From the ancient belief in the transformative powers of cannibalism to the astonishingly misguided attempts at curing ailments with tobacco smoke enemas, we uncover a tapestry of practices that, in hindsight, were often more perilous than the illnesses they sought to treat.

Join us as we navigate through the shadows of medical history, shining a light on the strange and sometimes shocking interventions of the past.

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Trepanning, the ancient practice of boring holes into the skull, stands as one of humanity's earliest surgical interventions, dating back to the Neolithic period. Archaeological evidence reveals that this procedure was remarkably common, with 5-10% of Neolithic skulls displaying telltale trepanation marks. Despite its brutal nature, some patients miraculously survived, evidenced by signs of healing on their skulls. Intriguingly, trepanning transcended geographical and cultural boundaries, with examples found in Europe, Siberia, China, and the Americas. Remarkably, this practice persisted beyond the Stone Age, extending through the classical period and into the Renaissance.

Shock Treatments: The Dubious Pursuit of Male Potency

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In the quest to address impotence, Victorian-era medical practitioners explored a myriad of treatments, often rooted in misconceptions and dubious practices. Samuel W. Gross, in his work on sexual disorders, attributed impotence to factors such as masturbation, gonorrhea, and sexual excesses. Enterprising doctors devised various remedies, including "galvanic baths" filled with electrodes and the insertion of electrified rods into the urethra, promising restoration of sexual desire and function. Additionally, the market became flooded with advertisements for "electropathic belts," which claimed to cure a range of ailments including kidney pains and nervous exhaustion, but primarily targeted men's sexual inadequacies. However, behind these ostensible solutions lay a landscape of quackery and exploitation, preying upon the insecurities of vulnerable individuals.