Dangerous and disgusting medicines of centuries past

Dangerous and Disgusting Medicines of Centuries Past(Image credit: Rafflesia arnoldii image via Shutterstock.)

Flowers, typically bright and beautiful, also have a dark side. From carnivorous blooms to poisonous posies, not all flowers are as sweet and innocent as they appear.

Here are 10 of the world's strangest flowers and plants. Before you stop to give them a sniff, be warned: Even the blossoms that don't contain neurotoxins put out odors pungent enough to knock you over.

10. Nerium oleander the sweetly scented killer

Dangerous and Disgusting Medicines of Centuries Past

The elegant Nerium oleander, the blossoms of which are crimson, magenta or creamy white, is one of the most toxic plants in the world. Every part of the plant, from its stem to its sap, is incredibly poisonous if ingested. Even inhaling the smoke from a burning oleander is a health threat.

There have been cases of inadvertent poisonings resulting from campers using oleander branches to roast hotdogs and marshmallows.

In fact, it is believed that some of Napoleon's soldiers died in Spain when they used oleander sticks to roast meat , according to “The Vegetable Kingdom; or, The Structure, Classification, and Uses of Plants” (D. Appleton & Co., 1853).

The blossom is so dangerous that even the honey made by bees that used the oleander plant for nectar is poisonous.

The flower's toxins cause an irregular heart rate, which at first races and then drops to a rate far below normal, until the heart stops beating altogether.

9. Aconitum the devil's helmet

The Most Dangerous Beauty Through the Ages

Dangerous and Disgusting Medicines of Centuries Past

Photo: DEA / G. NIMATALLAH/Getty Images

Women go under anesthesia for face-lifts, suck fat cells out of their thighs, roll needles into their faces for unclear reasons, and inject deadly toxins to get rid of wrinkles. These things all seem, well, rational to us now. But will our great, great, great granddaughters think so?

Every generation loves to look back on the follies of past generations and laugh about how dumb they were. “How could those idiots have thought bird-poop facials and fish pedicures were a good idea?” they’ll say of us in 2213.

  But there’s a lot we can learn by looking back at past beauty rituals: Mainly, that no one has ever wanted wrinkles or zits, celebrities will always be aspirational, and (beauty) history will repeat itself, just with different ingredients.

Caroline Rance, a historian and the author of The Quack Doctor, acknowledges that powerful, popular women have always set trends. Elizabeth I inspired a generation of women to smear lead all over their faces, much the same way Gwyneth Paltrow champions green juice (which I’m convinced will someday be proven to be toxic) and laser treatments.

As you’re contemplating your January self-improvement plan – a honey diet, perhaps? – in the coming weeks, take a peek at some of the deadly and disgusting things women have done in past centuries.

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Five bloodcurdling medical procedures that are no longer performed … thankfully

Surgeries and treatments come and go. A new BMJ guideline, for example, makes “strong recommendations” against the use of arthroscopic surgery for certain knee conditions.

But while this key-hole surgery may slowly be scrapped in some cases due to its ineffectiveness, a number of historic “cures” fell out of favour because they were more akin to a method of torture.

Here are five of the most extraordinary and unpleasant.

1. Trepanation

Trepanation (drilling or scraping a hole in the skull) is the oldest form of surgery we know of. Humans have been performing it since neolithic times.

We don’t know why people did it, but some experts believe it could have been to release demons from the skull.

Surprisingly, some people lived for many years after this brutal procedure was performed on them, as revealed by ancient skulls that show evidence of healing.

Although surgeons no longer scrape holes in peoples’ skulls to release troublesome spirits, there are still reports of doctors performing the procedure to relieve pressure on the brain.

For example, a GP at a district hospital in Australia used an electric drill he found in a maintenance cupboard to bore a hole in a 13-year-old boy’s skull.

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Without the surgery, the boy would have died from a blood clot on the brain.

2. Lobotomy

It’s hard to believe that a procedure more brutal than trepanation was widely performed in the 20th century. Lobotomy involved severing connections in the brain’s prefrontal lobe with an implement resembling an icepick (a leucotome).

Antonio Egas Moniz, a Portuguese neurologist, invented the procedure in 1935. A year later, Walter Freeman brought the procedure to the US. Freeman was an evangelist for this new form of “psychosurgery”. He drove around the country in his “loboto-mobile” performing the procedure on thousands of hapless patients.

Instead of a leucotome, Freeman used an actual icepick, which he would hammer through the corner of an eye socket using a mallet. He would then jiggle the icepick around in a most unscientific manner. Patients weren’t anaesthetised – rather they were in an induced seizure.

Thankfully, advances in psychiatric drugs saw the procedure fall from favour in the 1960s. Freeman performed his last two icepick lobotomies in 1967. One of the patients died from a brain haemorrhage three days later.

Walter Freeman (left) and James Watts study an x-ray prior to conducting ‘psychosurgery’. Wikimedia Commons/Harris A Ewing

3. Lithotomy

This Dutch blacksmith, Jan de Doot, removed his own bladder stone. Wikimedia Commons

Ancient Greek, Roman, Persian and Hindu texts refer to a procedure, known as lithotomy, for removing bladder stones. The patient would lay on their back, feet apart, while a blade was passed into the bladder through the perineum – the soft bit of flesh between the sex organ and anus. Further indignity was inflicted by surgeons inserting their fingers or surgical instruments into the rectum or urethra to assist in the removal of the stone. It was an intensely painful procedure with a mortality rate of about 50%.

The number of lithotomy operations performed began to fall in the 19th century, and it was replaced by more humane methods of stone extraction. Healthier diets in the 20th century helped make bladder stones a rarity, too.

4. Rhinoplasty (old school)

Syphilis arrived in Italy in the 16th century, possibly carried by sailors returning from the newly exploited Americas (the so-called Columbian exchange).

The sexually transmitted disease had a number of cruel symptoms, one of which was known as “saddle-nose”, where the bridge of the nose collapses. This nasal deformity was an indicator of indiscretions, and many used surgery to try and hide it.

A patient undergoing Tagliacozzi’s procedure for fixing saddle-nose. Wikimedia Commons/Wellcome Images

An Italian surgeon, Gaspare Tagliacozzi, developed a method for concealing this nasal deformity. He created a new nose using tissue from the patient’s arm.

He would then cover this with a flap of skin from the upper arm, which was rather awkwardly still attached to the limb.

Once the skin graft was firmly attached – after about three weeks – Tagliacozzie would separate the skin from the arm.

The were reported cases of patients’ noses turning purple in cold winter months and falling off.

Today, syphilis is easily treated with a course of antibiotics.

5. Bloodletting

Losing blood, in modern medicine, is generally considered to be a bad thing. But, for about 2,000 years, bloodletting was one of the most common procedures performed by surgeons.

10 Most Barbaric Treatments in Modern Healthcare

Sophisticated and essentially humane treatments in healthcare and medicine are often seen as indicators of an evolved, modern society. After all, the manner in which we look after our sick people is one of the defining factors in our effectiveness as a health-conscious and scrupulous nation.

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In spite of this, it may surprise some to discover how wrong healthcare techniques can go when delivered with just the right amount of ignorance. Stories of inexplicably bizarre and torturous procedures litter our recent past.

What follows is a journey through some of the more notorious and ill-conceived approaches aimed at restoring people to physical and mental wellness — namely, the 10 most barbaric treatments in the history of modern healthcare.

10. Trepanning

Trepanning is an infamous surgical technique involving scraping or drilling a hole in the patient's skull in order to treat intracranial diseases.

The practice is at least 8,000 years old and, perhaps surprisingly, has survived into the modern era.

Cave paintings point to the fact that the procedure was originally thought to heal migraines, epileptic seizures and serious mental disorders.

More modern examples of the technique include the use of trepanation in epidural and subdural hematomas. The process — which is used for surgical access to certain parts of the brain — is generally referred to as a craniotomy by modern surgeons.

Some people have even been known to voluntarily undergo the procedure, most notably Peter Halvorson, who in 1972 self-administered trepanation with an electric drill. He remains an ardent supporter of the alarming method, and is founder and director of the International Trepanation Advocacy Group.

9. Bariatric Surgery

Sometimes referred to as a “lobotomy of the stomach,” bariatric surgery is a form of weight loss surgery performed on patients who are morbidly obese. The concept behind the procedure is that weight loss be achieved either by implanting a medical device — for example, a gastric band — or shockingly, by removing part of the stomach itself.

Studies have shown the very real risks of serious health complications following this form of surgery. From a survey of 2,522 patients who had undergone the treatment, 21.9 % developed problems during the hospital stay itself and a staggering 40% experienced issues within six months of the procedure. The surgery remains popular and, within reason, is available to anyone.

8. Insulin Shock Therapy

The disturbingly named insulin coma therapy, or insulin shock therapy, was a type of psychiatric treatment widely used in hospitals in the 1930s through the 1950s. It involved repeatedly administering large doses of insulin to patients, with the aim of causing daily comas over a course of several weeks.

Predominantly used to treat schizophrenia, the treatment was introduced to the medical community in 1933 by the Austrian-born psychiatrist Manfred Sakel. During a standard length of treatment, injections of insulin were given six days a week for around two months, although courses lasting up to two years have been recorded.

Syphilis – Its early history and Treatment until Penicillin and the Debate on its Origins

“If I were asked which is the most destructive of all diseases I should unhesitatingly reply, it is that which for some years has been raging with impunity … What contagion does thus invade the whole body, so much resist medical art, becomes inoculated so readily, and so cruelly tortures the patient ?”  Desiderius Erasmus, 1520. [1]

In 1495 an epidemic of a new and terrible disease broke out among the soldiers of Charles VIII of France when he invaded Naples in the first of the Italian Wars, and its subsequent impact on the peoples of Europe was devastating – this was syphilis, or grande verole, the “great pox”.

  Although it didn’t have the horrendous mortality of the bubonic plague, its symptoms were painful and repulsive – the appearance of genital sores, followed by foul abscesses and ulcers over the rest of the body and severe pains.

  The remedies were few and hardly efficacious, the mercury inunctions and suffumigations that people endured were painful and many patients died of mercury poisoning.

Sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s) have posed a threat to military service members throughout history. [2, 3]  In the US Army during World War I they were the second most common reason for disability and absence from duty, being responsible for nearly 7 million lost person-days and the discharge of more than 10,000 men.

   Only the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 accounted for more loss of duty during that war.  During World War II between 1941 and 1945 the annual incidence of STD’s in the US Army was 43 per 1,000 strength.

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  In the Vietnam War during the period 1963 to 1970 the overall average annual incidence of STD’s was 262 per 1,000 strength, compared with,  at the time, 30 per 1,000 in continental US-based army personnel.  In Vietnam 90% of STD cases were due to gonorrhoea and slightly over 1% were due to syphilis.

[3]  The impact of gonorrhoea and syphilis on military personnel in terms of morbidity and mortality was greatly mitigated after 1943 due to the introduction of penicillin, as well as other factors such as education, prophylaxis, training of health personnel and adequate and rapid access to treatment.

Up until the early 20th century it was believed that syphilis had been brought from America and the New World to the Old World by Christopher Columbus in 1493.  In 1934 a new hypothesis was put forward, that syphilis had previously existed in the Old World before Columbus.

I In the 1980’s palaeopathological studies found possible evidence that supported this hypothesis and that syphilis was an old treponeal disease which in the late 15th century had suddenly evolved to become different and more virulent.

  Some recent studies however have indicated that this is not the case and  it still may be  a new epidemic venereal disease introduced by Columbus from America.

The first epidemic of the ‘Disease of Naples’ or the ‘French disease’ in Naples 1495

9 Terrifying Medical Treatments from 1900 and Their Safer Modern Versions

In September 1918, a 23-year-old woman “of marvelous gowns and haughty mien” was arrested at Chicago’s La Salle Hotel after a crime spree that included posing as a Department of Justice representative, cashing stolen checks, and performing “various miracles at getting ready money,” according to a Chicago Tribune article.

The authorities underestimated their slippery prisoner, who escaped from the South Clark Street police station before answering for her alleged offenses.

By no means, however, had her brush with the law scared her straight. Soon after her police station disappearing act, Julia Lyons—also known as Marie Walker, Ruth Hicks, Mrs. H. J.

Behrens, and a range of other aliases—concocted an even more devious scheme.

The Rose-Lipped, Pearly-Toothed Price Gouger

As The Washington Post reports, Chicago was in the throes of the 1918 influenza pandemic that fall, and hospitals were enlisting nurses to tend to patients at home.

Lyons, correctly assuming that healthcare officials wouldn’t be vetting volunteers very thoroughly, registered as a nurse under several pseudonyms and spent the next two months caring for a string of ailing men and women across the city.

Lyons’s modus operandi was simple: After getting a prescription filled, she’d charge her patient much more than the actual cost. Once, she claimed $63 for a dose of oxygen that had actually cost $5 (which, once adjusted for inflation, is the same as charging $1077 for an $85 item today).

Sometimes, “Flu Julia,” as the Chicago Tribune nicknamed her, even summoned a so-called doctor—later identified by the police as a “dope seller and narcotic supplier”—to forge the prescriptions for her.

Then she’d flee the property, absconding with cash, jewelry, clothing, and any other valuables she could find lying around the house.

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