A few interesting facts about the history of medicine and medical practices.

Medical History Bits and Bites

A few interesting facts about medicine from the past. Our views on medical treatments have changed drastically over the years.

Sona Kerim
Dec 19, 2019 · 5 min read

Herbs, plants and other natural ingredients were the basis of all medicine throughout history. It wasn’t uncommon that some of these remedies had no medicinal qualities whatsoever — there was a lot of trial and error to get to where we are today.

Ancient Egyptians seemed to know their stuff

One interesting part of ancient medical history was the ancient Egyptian use of honey to keep out bacteria from wounds. They also used mouldy bread to prevent infections in wounds.

They may not have known exactly why these methods work, but now we have the science that explains how these procedures would have helped. We now know that honey offers antibacterial activity and the mould on the bread worked kind of like penicillin. The ingenuity is still pretty amazing to look back at.

Ancient Egyptians were quite good at finding legitimate cures for illnesses.

But not all historical remedies were so effective

Medicines to look like ailment

Throughout history, from medieval times to the Victorian era, medicines that were developed by chemists, pharmacists, nuns or anyone generally interested in medicine were thought to be effective because they looked similar to the ailment or had similar qualities.

Onions were used to cure a common cold because the symptoms are so similar when you cut into one!

One example of this would be using hot compresses to treat burns and treating the common cold with onions (raw onions make your eyes tear up and your nose run, just like the common cold).

Another interesting lookalike remedy was for bruises, which was a mix of some herbs and crushed worms. These didn’t work — but not all historical remedies were useless.

Barber surgeons

Watercolour by J. Cats, 1787, after B. Maton.

There was a point in history where you could get a hair cut and have minor surgery performed in the same place! This might sound crazy, or maybe familiar, as there was a musical based around this called Sweeny Todd.

A barber-surgeon was someone who could bathe, cut the hair on your head and facial hair, and could perform minor surgical procedures. Some of these procedures included bloodletting and pulling teeth…they could also give enemas.

Women’s Health

You might recognize the name Hildegard of Bingen from my article about how the four humours influenced early medicine. She was the abbess of her convent and contributed to the medical world with a combination of spiritual visions and the science of the day.

One of her greatest achievements in medicine related to women’s health — it was her knowledge of menstruation, childbirth and other specifically female ‘ailments’ that led gynecology and obstetrics to gain a foothold in the medical world.

A lot of these female ‘ailments’ were often considered matters of folklore or witchcraft — it’s safe to assume that women appreciated her impact on women’s health…mind you, women’s health was still a long way away from being studied in depth.

Phrenology

Phrenology is now considered a pseudoscience, but at its time, it was believed by many to be a revolutionary science to explain why people behave in certain ways. Phrenology was the idea that by measuring the shape of the skull, you could predict personality traits in people.

Phrenological skull demonstrating where certain traits will appear.

In 1976, a German physician Franz Joseph Gall developed this discipline. His “discovery” and development of phrenological practices were very influential throughout the 19th century, particularly in the early to mid-1800s.

Gall believed that thoughts, emotions, and character traits were all located in particular parts of the brain. And since it was believed that the skull is formed based on the development of the brain, it meant that Gall believed you could examine the shape of a skull to discover which parts of the brain were over or underdeveloped — and therefore determine a person’s intellectual aptitude or personality traits.

Drugs, drugs, drugs

Most of us have had some experience with someone who suffered from alcoholism. Exessive alcohol consumption is not a new thing, by any means. Historically, it was more common, and sometimes even recommended, that people drink wine or ale over drinking water, because of the poor quality of water available.

In the late 1800s, being loud, rowdy and drunk in public was seen as abhorrent. So a new drug was developed that was considered to be non-addictive and was recommended as the cure for alcoholism as well as a better alternative to using morphine. Have you guessed it yet?!

It was also considered to be a great cure if you had a cough…any ideas?

Heroin…yes…heroin was often prescribed as a cure for alcoholism. It was possible to order heroin, as well as the glass and metal syringes, from a brochure right to your door. It was considered to be a great solution, as it made people more subdued, which was preferable in public.

Mind you, it didn’t take too long before they realized all of the awful side-effects of heroin-use and the addictive qualities of this drug.

Thankfully, medicine is evolving

Needless to say, medicine has come a long way and is constantly evolving. From the ancient Egyptians to the Victorians, we’ve had a small glimpse at some of the weirder medical remedies! Some of these artifacts can be found in museums if you know where to look.

What your favourite “weird historical medicine”? Let me know in the comments!

This blog is written out of the l❤️ve of History and sharing knowledge!

Sona Kerim is a Copywriter and Educator who has degrees in History, Philosophy and Education.

You can find her on Linked In or Facebook!

Weird History

All about weird and less-known parts of history

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