A History of Medical Horrors
The following presents a by-no-means exhaustive list of some of the high (or low) points in the history of medicine.
The barber surgeons
Although surgery and medicine are now closely allied, it was not always thus. Although originally under the same umbrella in Ancient Greece and Rome, throughout the Renaissance and until the 18th century in Western Europe, surgery was really considered more of a trade than a profession, and surgeons were more allied with barbers than with physicians.
In the early Middle Ages, most medical and surgical treatment was the province of the clergy, but a papal decree prohibiting priests to shed blood meant that this aspect of treatment passed to the barbers who were often attached to monasteries. Initially the priests were required to supervise treatment, such as the surgical removal of gallstones, but eventually surgery spread outside of the monasteries, especially during times of war, when military surgeons were in great demand to treat battlefield injuries.
The publication of the book Chirurgia Magna (Great Surgery), by the French surgeon, Guy de Chauliac in 1316 marked a departure point between the barbers with little medical training and the surgeons. And in 1540 the split became final with surgeons forbidden to practice barbery and barbers not allowed to perform surgery, except for the extraction of teeth. The red and white barber's pole to this day harks back to the blood and bandages of the barber surgeons of yesteryear.
At this time physicians were respected for their cultivation and erudition and had commensurately high incomes with their record of successful treatment definitely being considered secondary to their education. They stuck to the rigors of their training, never questioning or testing its basis in fact.
In the mid-eighteenth century a skilled barber-surgeon seeking the prestige of the physicians led a drive for professional recognition and the Company of Surgeons was formed. This later evolved into the Royal College of Surgeons of England.
For much of this time the treatments meted out were proportional to the fear of the diseases of the time and these are now referred to under the umbrella of 'Heroic medicine'. Therapies included bleeding, leeching, purging (either by emetic or enema), blistering, the use of medicines which we now know to have been poisonous and the induction of profuse sweating (diaphoresis).
"Their techniques were rooted in the notion that the way to exorcise one set of afflictions from a patient’s body was to subject it to a considerably more violent set of afflictions. The heroics were entirely on the part of the patient: for even the mildest ailments, one could expect to be bled, leeched, cupped, blistered, amputated, sweated, trepanned, scourged, and purged and flayed to the fare-thee-well."
Gay Courter, Flowers in the Blood
First propounded by Ancient Greek, Roman and Islamic physicians, the theory of the four humors became the most commonly held view of the human body among European physicians right up until the nineteenth century. As determined by Hippocrates, the four humors were black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. In health these humors were considered to be balanced, but an excess or deficiency of one or more humors was considered to result in disease.
When the Roman Empire collapsed it was replaced largely with folk medicine for many centuries until the establishment of the Salerno School of Medicine in Italy around 1,000 AD when professional medicine and the theory of the four humors re-emerged.
"The underlying theory on which much of Western medicine was based for almost a thousand years was pure bunk."
Richard Zacks from An Underground Education
Of all the humors, blood was regarded as the dominant humor and the one that most needed control. They thought that blood was created and then used up so that it could stagnate in the extremities. As such, bloodletting was used to treat or prevent almost every disease. This was thought to balance the humors and was the most common medical practice performed by doctors for two thousand years!
Galen of Greece discovered that veins as well as arteries were full of blood and not air as previously supposed. He went on to devise a complex system of how much arterial or venous blood required removal therapeutically based upon the the distance or proximity to the affected area, the severity of the condition, the patient's age, their constitution, the season, the weather and the place. The more serious the disease, the more blood was required to be let and the induction of fainting was considered beneficial.
Bloodletting was practised all over the world and in spite of the fact that William Harvey disproved the theory that underscored bloodletting in 1628, Sir William Osler was still recommending it in his 1923 text The Principles and Practice of Medicine. Cups were sometimes used that would be placed over the site of the incision and replaced when full of blood. The use of leeches was also popular to the extent that in the 1830s that the French were importing about forty million leeches a year for medical purposes.
Blaming deaths on the disease and crediting the physician with recovery patients were aggressively bled. One record of a French sergeant who was stabbed through the chest in 1823 reveals that the patient was bled a total of eight times over a period of 24 hours after admission, thus removing half his circulating blood. This was followed by leech treatments and more bleedings over the following day. The attending physicians credited his survival on their pro-active treatment involving draining a total of nearly 11 pints or 5 litres of blood and a further 2 pints or 1 litre through leeching.
One of the signatories to the American Declaration of Independence, the physician Benjamin Rush, was an enthusiastic advocate of heroic medicine in general and bloodletting in particular. He is credited with killing over a thousand patients through his administration of bloodletting, blistering and administering mercury cures. In fact, his treatments are estimated to have single-handedly killed more people than the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.
George Washington too is also believed to have been bled and poisoned to death by his physicians after they removed 1.7 litres (3 pints) of blood and not to have died from a throat infection as they reported.
It was ultimately the educated surgeons who first called time on the practice of bloodletting considering it to be primitive and dangerous.
For many, many centuries mercury based medications have enjoyed a special place in the affections of physicians. The anti-depressant Blue Mass contained thousands of times the 'safe' daily dose and salves containing mercury were often applied to various sores and wounds.
While well-intentioned, and often well-accepted by the medical community, these treatments actually did untold harm killing an incalculable number of trusting patients in the most horrific way possible.
A century ago, opium (containing heroin) and its derivative, morphine, were widely used in medications and injections and this is evidenced by the fact that today production largely from Afghanistan is one-fifth of that a century ago in spite of widespread illegal drug abuse.
Antimony tartrate was also used to induce vomiting, sweating and production of phlegm, and blistering agents such as Mustard Plasters (shown left) were used to aid purging.
The tobacco smoke enema
Various devices for blowing tobacco smoke into the unfortunate patient's rectum were devised on the basis that tobacco was seen as warming and stimulating and an antidote to cold and drowsiness.
Tobacco smoke enemas were prescribed for a variety of abdominal and respiratory complaints, and were also used to resuscitate victims of near drowning.
This became an established practice and was considered as important as artificial respiration to which end the UK Royal Humane Society installed smoke enema resuscitation kits along the banks of the River Thames in the 1780s.
The practice finally fell into decline during the early 19th century when it was recognised that the nicotine in tobacco was poisonous.
"Here, therefore, I conceive it most proper to bleed first in the arm, and an hour or two afterwards to throw up a strong purging glyster; and I know of none so strong and effectual as the smoke of tobacco, forced up through a large bladder into the bowels by an inverted pipe, which may be repeated after a short interval, if the former, by giving a stool, does not open a passage downwards."
Thomas Sydenham, 1809
The South African surgeon Christiaan Barnard conducted the first heart transplant in 1967. The plumbing side of things worked, but the poor understanding of immunology at the time meant that the patient died two weeks later of double pneumonia.
In spite of this the operation was pronounced a success and the 'pioneering work' of Christiaan Barnard was soon to be emulated by other surgeons around the world who wanted to be the first in their country or hospital to perform the procedure. The fatality rate for the first few dozen surgeries was 100%, but this did not seem to dampen their enthusiasm for the procedure.
In the days before the advent of antibiotics, sanatoria were established all over the world as places in which the chronically ill and patients with infectious diseases such as tuberculosis or leprosy could be treated.
The sanatoria provided good nutrition and rest (nothing wrong with that), but placed a great deal of faith in the curative powers of clean air. This meant that seriously ill patients were frequently put outside - even overnight - in subzero temperatures as this picture shows. Some patients even recall waking to find their bed covered in snow if it had snowed during the night.
The cold, clean mountain air of Switzerland was considered particularly therapeutic and many clinics with rooftop terraces were established.
This therapy may have worked, presumably on the basis that what didn't kill you, made you strong!
For two and a half centuries from 1700 to 1950, a variety of 'therapeutic' treatments were used on psychiatric patients. By and large the mentally ill were regarded as being subhuman and so many of the types of treatments used to tame animals were deemed appropriate. Treatments included:
Confining patients to hollow wheels in which they could either remain stationary or run for up to 48 hours.
Jolting patients back to sensibility using terror to which end patients were nearly drowned while cannon were fired.
The American physician, Benjamin Rush, first initiated the idea that mental illness could be shaken from a person. As such he devised twirling chairs in which the patient could be spun around their own axis up to 100 times a minute in an effort to separate the humors and/or improve circulation to the brain. A variation included a board to which the patient was strapped and spun.
Restraining devices such as barred cribs in which the patient could not move, chains, shackles, fetters and straitjackets were frequently used.
The tranquilliser chair was a combination of a restraining device in which the patient was strapped to a chair and a wooden hood placed over their head so that they were also deprived of sensory input. This was said to reduce the flow of stimulating blood to the brain.
Water treatments of various hues included cold water douchings which were thought to control agitation and mania by slowing the metabolism. Others such as the Dutch medical teacher, Hermann Boerhaave, recommended throwing the unsuspecting patient into the sea and then keeping them under water as long as possible without actually killing them. The thinking behind these hydrotherapies was evidently based upon altering blood flows to the brain.
Trepanning, or trephining involved drilling a hole into the skull in order to treat health problems related to diseases thought to be intracranial.
Somewhat remarkably, there is evidence of the practice in prehistoric times, pre-Columbian Mesoamerica and throughout the classical and Renaissance periods when the procedure was widely thought to cure epilepsy, migraines, and mental disorders and both Hippocrates and Galen describe the procedure.
The fifteenth century painter, Hieronymous Bosch, depicts the removing of the 'stone of madness' which, according to popular superstition, was a cause of mental illness, depression or stupidity. While such stones could be located anywhere in the body, they were most frequently thought to be located in the head.
The last recorded case involved two men from Cedar City, Utah being prosecuted for performing a trepanation on an English woman with chronic fatigue syndrome and depression in 2000!
A lobotomy consists of severing the connections to and from the prefrontal lobes of the brain. The first lobotomy was performed in 1935 by António Egas Moniz and he was later awarded a Nobel Prize for his work. The thinking was that illnesses such as schizophrenia were due to aberrant brain circuits and that removal of these circuits would result in a cure or improvement in mental symptoms. It became a mainstream procedure for more than two decades, prescribed for a wide variety of mostly psychiatric conditions.
Embraced enthusiastically by surgeons and psychiatrists around the world, 40,000 lobotomies were performed in the United States, 17,000 in the Great Britain, and Scandinavia proved particularly receptive lobotomising 44,000 people - 2.5 times as many people per capita as the US. Most of the treatments were of women and mentally retarded children and the operation killed about 3% of all patients, and had serious, frequent and lasting side-effects in others.
Doctors in the Soviet Union were the first to question the procedure outlawing it in 1950, and other countries eventually followed suit until it fell from favour in the 1970s.
Electric shock treatment
Now known as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), this involves the induction of a seizure by passing an electric current through the brain of a psychiatric patient for therapeutic effect.
It was conceived in 1938 by the Italian psychiatrist, Ugo Cerletti, when he witnessed pigs being electrocuted in the slaughterhouse prior to having their throats slit. In fact, chemical agents had been used since the 16th century to produce 'therapeutic' seizures in patients with psychiatric conditions, so that Cerletti's treatment was merely an update using the technology of the time.
Electroconvulsive therapy was widely used throughout the middle part of the twentieth century on hundreds of thousands of patients suffering from a range of psychiatric 'disorders' including depression, mania, schizophrenia, homosexuality and truancy. The majority of such subjects have been women.
ECT has never been demonstrated to produce any sustained benefit, with studies showing that the treatment fared no better than a sham treatment suggesting that any therapeutic effect may have been attributable to the placebo effect.
Even in the minority of patients for whom electroconvulsive therapy appears to have been successful, there is frequently a relapse within 6 months. This results in the repeated administration of the 'treatment' where patients in the 1950s sometimes received more than 100 treatments with the types and amounts of electricity used often increasing with each therapy.
A small but significant number of patients die as a result of these seizures, and in cases where anaesthetics and muscle relaxants were not used and patients were strapped to the gurney, some sustained broken bones and vertebrae.
The medical profession openly admits that the mode of action of ECT is unknown which is probably not surprising given that it also admits that it does not have any idea what causes psychiatric illness, except for their beloved and discredited 'chemical imbalance' theory.
The long-term loss of memory and cognitive ability is a widely recognised effect of electroconvulsive therapy and somewhat shockingly, the first long-term prospective study into these effects was not conducted until 2007. It is still used today as a last ditch treatment when psychiatric patients have not responded to pharmaceutical therapy and is considered 'safe and effective' by many psychiatrists.
Incidentally, if you think that we now have a scientific understanding of mental illness, or can now cure psychiatric illness you may be interested to watch What's Wrong With Psychiatry or Psychiatry: No Science, No Cures.
21st century medical horrors
Although many of these practices may seem laughable or tragic depending upon your point of view, for most of this time the medical profession prided itself upon being scientific. Everyone knew and accepted certain things to be true which is why it took two thousand years for the theory of the four humors to be seriously questioned.
Physicians were presumably acting on the basis that it was better to be seen to be doing something rather than nothing much of the time. And they probably earnestly believed in their therapies and the desparate patients had also invested their trust in someone they considered to be powerful and knowledgeable. In addition to which, many possibly bankrupted themselves then as now to obtain what they saw to be life-saving treatment (medical bills are currently responsible for 50% of all bankruptcies in the USA).
In fact, the whole system rests on the unquestioning faith of the masses in the helping professions and their unswerving belief in the efficacy of their treatments. Some patients obviously managed to stage a recovery - probably in spite of their doctors concerted efforts and possibly by harnessing the placebo effect.
The allopathic medical profession now claims legitimacy as the only credible source of treatment and, in fact, many alternatives are now outlawed such as any treatment other than chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery for the treatment of cancer. However, the profession has recently looked down and found that the foundations upon which it bases many of its treatments are looking pretty shaky and they are now involved in a scramble to legitimise treatments through 'evidence based medicine'.
Consider, for example, the wisdom of regularly x-raying women's sensitive breast tissue in order to detect cancerous tumours early. Or the endorsement of cigarettes by the medical profession in the 1950s who not only vigorously denied any ill effects from smoking, but actually claimed that it was positively beneficial (based upon 'scientific studies' funded by the cigarette manufacturers).
If you think the comparison of the heroic medicine practised by their forebears with 'modern' medicine is unfair, try asking an oncologist if they would submit themselves, their wife, husband or child to the surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments they enthusiastically prescribe for others. Or try posing the same question to a psychiatrist with regard to electroconvulsive therapy for a loved one.
“In 50 years time when people realise what 21st century medicine has done - the pain and suffering it has caused driven by ignorance and greed - the medieval barber surgeons with their humors and bloodletting are going to look like Nobel laureates.”
Tom Klaber, President of Bridge Medicine
There was another type of medicine - natural medicine - but that was essentially taken off the playing board with the advent of organised pharmaceutical medicine in the nineteenth century. Since then we have seen at first hand the bottomless pit of human folly cynically exploited and manipulated by Big Pharma.
And many millions are still going to their graves trusting in the treatments their doctor prescribes and the wonders of 'modern' medicine. All estimates place medical and pharmaceutical treatment as currently being one of the biggest killers in the US and some place it as the leading cause of death with over 300,000 hospital deaths per year from iatrogenic causes alone.
"Unless we put medical freedom into the constitution the time will come when medicine will organise into an undercover dictatorship and force people who wish doctors and treatment of their own choice to submit to only what the dictating outfit offers."
Benjamin Rush, one of the first US physicians
For their part the doctors still regard their patients as dying from their illnesses, and not from their cures. This is in spite of the lunacy of giving someone with a cancer chemotherapy drugs which wipe out their immune response and take them to the brink of death in the hope of killing the tumour before they kill the patient.
What if, to paraphrase the former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, allopathic medicine is wrong about the known knowns ie: the things it thinks it knows and the unknown unknowns ie: the things it doesn't know that it doesn't know?
“The truest characters of ignorance are vanity, and pride and arrogance.”