When The Remedy is Worse Than The Disease

Silvia Gosálvez

Artwork By Rola Abdelwahab

The history of medicine dates back to the first Mesopotamian civilizations – although back then it was based on the notion of using incantations to exorcise the devil or other evil spirits and remove them from the body (Jaramillo-Antillón, 2001). Similarly, medicine in ancient Egypt was based on magic and religion, with priests and seers treating the sick (Jaramillo-Antillón, 2001). The beginning of scientific medicine is said to have started with Hippocrates in Ancient Greece and has since evolved into the impressive science we know it as today (Jaramillo-Antillón, 2001). However, before reaching the sophistication of modern medicine, doctors in the past were guided significantly by trial and error, an approach that sometimes proved to be fatal. Despite a doctor’s best intentions of curing their patients, sometimes their remedies were actually worse than the disease being treated. In this article, we will discuss some past medical practices which may sound completely shocking to people nowadays.

Lobotomy

From the greek words lobos (lobe of the brain) and tome (cut or slice), lobotomy was the procedure used to treat patients suffering various mental illnesses in an attempt to cure them and set them free from the gruesome conditions of mental asylums (Montagud Rubio, n.d.). Modern lobotomy was developed during the twentieth century, by the Portuguese neurologist António Egas Moniz. Nonetheless, this technique was modified by Dr. Walter Freeman, who claimed that mental disorders were based on the interaction between the thalamus and prefrontal cortex. Following this claim, Dr. Freeman developed a procedure to sever the connections using an ice pick (Montagud Rubio, n.d.). The doctor was to introduce the instrument under the eyelid and blindly reach the frontal lobe, proceeding to pick it as if it were ice with the help of a hammer, entirely ignoring the importance of the frontal lobe in terms of executive functions (Montagud Rubio, n.d.). This practice was extremely prejudicial, having multiple consequences such as confusion, stupor, personality changes, and loss of certain skills such as memory, planning, and attention among others. Unsurprisingly, one out of every three patients who underwent a lobotomy didn’t survive the intervention (Montagud Rubio, n.d.).

Mercury

Named after the Roman God, this heavy metal is extremely toxic for living beings, as it accumulates inside of us via absorption through the skin, ingestion, or even inhalation. Nonetheless, for centuries it was injected in its liquid form or as a salt to treat “melancholy, constipation, syphilis, influenza, parasite” among other ailments (Kang and Pedersen, 2018). An example of this treatment is the use of calomel, a strong purgative given to children from the sixteenth through the twentieth century, which led to the development of a condition known as acrodynia, characterized by extreme pain and discoloration of the hands and feet  (Kang and Pedersen, 2018). Another common use for mercury was in the treatment of syphilis (a sexually transmitted disease) in Protestant Europe. In Western Europe, it was used to treat skin diseases. Noticing the lethal effects Mercury had when presented as an elixir, doctors began prescribing it as an ointment, unaware that the cutaneous absorption of the substance is just as detrimental as its oral ingestion. 

Bloodletting

One of the oldest practices in medicine, the extraction of blood was common throughout numerous civilizations and is still used in certain microsurgeries, although with a more modern perspective. The origin of this treatment was based on the belief that illnesses were caused by imbalances of the body, an opinion introduced by Hippocrates when he emphasized the need for a perfect balance between “our ‘humors’—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile”, in order to have good health (Cohen, 2012). Hence, when the overabundance of blood was thought to be the cause of the malaise, bloodletting was prescribed. This practice was continued through the middle ages, to treat all varieties of illnesses “from plague and smallpox to epilepsy and gout”, with varied methods of extraction, from small incisions to the characteristic use of leeches (Cohen, 2012). This technique was ineffective, as the withdrawal of blood actually worsened the condition of the already sick patients, dropping blood pressure, causing cardiac arrest, anemia, and increasing the patient’s exposure to infection (Engelhaupt, 2015).

These are only three examples of the multiple medical practices which may appall modern individuals, but only because medical research has advanced in a way that allows us to take new approaches within medicine. Currently, there is a long and arduous process that new medical techniques have to go through to get approved, ensuring the wellbeing of the patient. So don’t worry, your doctor will not prescribe you a mercury-infused ointment for a rash or pull out a bucket of famished leeches if you complain of migraines.

Sources

Cohen, Jennie. (May 30, 2012) A Brief History of Bloodletting https://www.history.com/news/a-brief-history-of-bloodletting

Engelhaupt, Erika (October 27, 2015) Bloodletting Is Still Happening, Despite Centuries of Harm. National Geographic.  https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/bloodletting-is-still-happening-despite-centuries-of-harm#:~:text=Not%20only%20is%20there%20the,t%20cure%20what%20ails%20you

Jaramillo-Antillón, Juan. (2001). Evolución de la medicina: pasado, presente y futuro. Acta Médica Costarricense, 43(3), 105-113.

Kang, Lydia, and Nate Pedersen (March 1, 2018) Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything https://www.sciencefriday.com/articles/the-murderous-medical-practice-of-the-18th-century/

Montagud Rubio, Nahum. Los efectos de la lobotomía cerebral: un resumen. Psicología y Mente. https://psicologiaymente.com/salud/efectos-lobotomia-cerebral

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