Thanks to vast improvements in hygiene, pharmaceuticals, and surgical techniques and devices, medical treatments today tend to be significantly less painful—and less deadly—than they were a century ago. Though the cures of yesteryear often seem brutally primitive, some, like the five treatments in this gallery, stand on solid science.
The transorbital lobotomy is a pretty brutal practice. In 1946, Dr. Walter Freeman (left) created the procedure, in which physicians hammer an ice pick through the eye socket into the brain to sever nerve fibers in the frontal lobe. Despite lacking concrete evidence to prove its efficacy, Freeman’s emphatic promotion led to the procedure’s proliferation. Shoddy lobotomies—sometimes performed on unwilling patients—led to paralysis, brain death, and in some cases fatality. More effective drugs and surgeries were introduced to better tailor treatment, but the procedure, when performed correctly, worked for some patients.
Popular in the mid-1900s, electroshock therapy was used to treat patients with schizophrenia, depression and other affective mental disorders. Subjects received as many as 20 shocks in one treatment. The practice fell out of favor in the early 1960s when it was discovered that many institutionalized psychiatric patients were harmed by excessive and improperly administered treatments. As new psychiatric drugs became available, the practice was all but abandoned. Known today as electroconvulsion therapy, the treatment has shown to be an effective remedy for clinical depression. Even Princess Leia is a fan.
Ancient Indian, Greek and Egyptian texts indicate that these segmented worms have been used to treat everything from flatulence to joint pain for nearly 3,000 years. The medieval practice of bloodletting was perhaps the most infamous use of the vampire-like worm. Doctors believed an imbalance of blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile was the cause of most ailments. Leeches were applied to patients believed to have an excess of blood. While the medical community no longer accepts the widespread use of bloodletting, research has shown proteins in leech saliva can help treat cardiovascular problems, cancer, metastasis, and infectious diseases.
Victorian doctors often prescribed “medical massages” for women suffering “hysteria.” For symptoms like fever, racing pulse, flushed skin, and abdominal pain, doctors administered treatment with electric vibrators. While “female hysteria” was a catchall for psychiatric disorders in women and abandoned as more nuanced diagnoses were discovered, orgasm has many documented benefits.
Historians have evidence that ancient Indian, Egyptian and Greek civilizations all took part in some form of health tourism. However as city life became increasingly industrialized in the 1800s, many doctors in Europe began prescribing trips to countryside resorts for patients suffering from respiratory, psychological, and immune conditions. Recent findings show how some trips actually help patients. The hypersensitive city-dwellers exposed to irritants like pollen, fungi, and bacteria in country air build immunities to the allergens, thereby reducing allergic reactions on subsequent exposures.