Archive Gallery: Wildly Experimental Medical Procedures

PopSci learns, over the decades, that cocaine anesthesia, radioactive drinking water, and cryogenic cancer treatments are actually not good for your health
About five years before the practice of lobotomy hit its stride, researchers posited that it could reform adult criminals whose brains were simply wired for violence or perversion. Dr. Carleton Simon, of New York City, theorized that one lobe of the brain is naturally stronger than the other. When the weaker lobe grows to dominate the original strong lobe, however, "Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde; the law-abiding citizen becomes a criminal." Dr. Walter Freeman and Dr. James W. Watts, brain surgeons from Washington D.C., performed more than 48 lobotomies on mentally insane patients. Inserting a surgical instrument through the person's temple allowed the doctors to slice the brain's frontal area from its rear area. They would repeat the procedure on the other side of the brain. Patients were noticeably more subdued once they woke up. Although physicians at the time considered the transformation amazing, lobotomies declined during the 1970s after the general public deemed them unethical and unsafe. Read the full story in "Have You A Wrong Way Brain?"

Ah, death and disease, mankind’s greatest obstacles to reaching its full potential. Picture a future where people’s bodies were healthy enough to withstand famine, drought, and mutant viruses. Imagine where our technology would be if great scientific minds like Albert Einstein or Nikola Tesla were still alive.

Over the last century and more, medical science has certainly tried to help people live longer — if not forever — but as Popular Science has witnessed, the greatest advancements in science have occurred only after some trial and error. Unfortunately for the human subjects of the error.

Click to launch the photo gallery.

Less than a century ago, surgeons were still fighting to legitimize hypnotism as a form of anesthesia. And just twenty years prior, acclaimed physicians were injecting their patients’ spinal cords with cocaine to see how the substance worked as a painkiller.

As the decades unfolded, physicians grew eager to adapt the latest technology for their own use. Electricity powers buildings — can it power dying internal organs? Could that mysterious new element, radium, prolong youth for an additional decade? When technology enabled doctors to probe deeper into neurology and the mind, researchers wondered if they could manipulate human nature by eradicating violence and perversion from people’s biology.

There was only one way to find out if any of these ideas were possible, and that was through testing. Human testing, to be specific. We checked our archives to see what kind of treatments volunteers actually consented to, and well, we’ve got to applaud people for their bravery.

That, or patients just didn’t know better, so we’re thankful we live in the age where people know better than to brush their teeth with radioactive toothpaste.

Click through our gallery to see more examples of strange, now mostly outdated, medical practices. Although most of them are a little creepy, they were all conducted in the name of improving our lives.