politics & history 10 Horrifying Medical Procedures Doctors Actually Practiced In The 19th Century

Amanda Sedlak-Hevener
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The 19th century is known for many things, including the reign of Britain's Queen Victoria and the US Civil War. Coming on the heels of the Enlightenment and firmly encapsulating the Industrial Revolution,  the 19th century saw the advent of many new innovations, some of which affected the now-discredited medicinal practices that were common during this period. These gruesome medical practices included everything from the ingestion of poisonous substances to the application of leeches. Another horrible treatment from the 1800s was bloodletting. If you're sitting there and asking yourself what bloodletting is, then just read on to find out... 

They Drilled Holes In Skulls To Improve General Health


They Drilled Holes In Skulls T... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 10 Horrifying Medical Procedures Doctors Actually Practiced In The 19th Century
Photo: James Scott-Brown/flickr/CC-BY-NC 2.0

Trepanning is a medical treatment that involved cutting holes in the skull with a circular device in order to improve a patient's general health. If trepanning is done right, the brain usually isn't touched, making this procedure quite different from the brain scrambling that is lobotomy. Interestingly, trepassing is still used today to treat skull fractures and brain swelling, as opposed to its "general" use in the 19th century. Moreover, during the 1800s, there were no antibiotics, few sterilized surgical tools, and only the beginnings of painkillers, making this treatment rather horrific. 

They Took Mercury To Treat STDs


They Took Mercury To Treat STD... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list 10 Horrifying Medical Procedures Doctors Actually Practiced In The 19th Century
Photo: StormbloodCuriosities/flickr/CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Calomel was a drug given to people in order to purge their bodies of whatever was making them sick. In general, it was used to kill bacteria, and it was especially prevalent in the treatment of STDs. Unfortunately, the main ingredient in Calomel is mercury, which is extremely poisonous. Some of the side effects of this drug include bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, shortness of breath, and even brain damage. But hey, you don't have an STD anymore.

They Gave Babies Cocktails Of Alcohol And Morphine


They Gave Babies Cocktails Of ... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list 10 Horrifying Medical Procedures Doctors Actually Practiced In The 19th Century
Photo: By Miami U. Libraries - Digital Collections/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The rise of pre-made medicinal concoctions was one of the hallmarks of the 19th century. Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup is a good example of this. The "potion" was sold over the counter at pharmacies as a treatment for infants who were teething or colicky. The two main ingredients in the syrup - which was sold from 1845 up through 1930 - were alcohol and morphine. While neither were fatal (unless too much was given), it is disturbing to think that the children were calmed by this treatment due to its extremely sedative ingredients. 

The Drained Blood In Order To Balance The Body Out


The Drained Blood In Order To ... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 10 Horrifying Medical Procedures Doctors Actually Practiced In The 19th Century
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

Phlebotomy, also known as bloodletting, was a normal medical procedure during the 19th century. At the time, doctors still believed that the human body was made up of the four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile, and they thought that illnesses were caused by an overabundance of one of them. Therefore, removing blood from the body would reduce the imbalance and cure the issue. However, it wasn't just doctors who performed the procedure - some barbers placed it on the list of things they could do, alongside haircuts and shaves. 

Surgery And Amputations Were Carried Out Without Anesthesia


Surgery And Amputations Were C... is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list 10 Horrifying Medical Procedures Doctors Actually Practiced In The 19th Century
Photo:  Otis Historical Archives National Museum of History/Flickr

Although surgery is still a common phenomenon that's probably not going anywhere anytime soon, imagine it in a period before antibiotics and general anesthesia. To be fair, doctors had started administering chloroform by the 19th century, which rendered a patient unconscious, but is wasn't a popular option, even during limb amputations. In addition, the painkiller morphine existed, but it was often in scarce supply. During the US Civil War, the only way to save an arm or a leg that had been injured badly was to amputate it as quickly as possible. This was a risky procedure conducted in field hospitals not far from the battlefield, and cleanliness wasn't always a concern.  

Lobotomies Were All The Rage For Psychiatric Patients


Lobotomies Were All The Rage F... is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list 10 Horrifying Medical Procedures Doctors Actually Practiced In The 19th Century
Photo: Harris A Ewing/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Although the lobotomy is primarily thought of as a 20th-century practice, it was actually invented in the 1880s, making it a product of the 19th century. Gottlieb Burkhardt, a European doctor, practiced this "treatment" on psychiatric patients, cutting into the frontal lobes of their brains to cure them. It was believed that this part of the brain contained the "seat of reason." Burkhardt's methods were considered to be barbaric, and his fellow doctors did not think highly of him at the time. However, the lobotomy has never fully gone out of fashion, resurging in usage at various moments since its inception.

The Sprayed Wounds Down With Carbolic Acid


The Sprayed Wounds Down With C... is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list 10 Horrifying Medical Procedures Doctors Actually Practiced In The 19th Century
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

As the 19th century wore on, doctors began to realize that disinfectants were a medical necessity. They used these compounds, including the very potent and toxic carbolic acid, to sterilize their surgical tools and to clean wounds. The problem with this is the fact that carbolic acid causes third-degree burns when applied directly to the skin. It is also deadly when swallowed. 

Leeches Were Used For Pretty Much Everything


Leeches Were Used For Pretty M... is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list 10 Horrifying Medical Procedures Doctors Actually Practiced In The 19th Century
Photo: Burns Archive/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Leeches were used up through the 19th century as a viable medical treatment. One British medical text from the period recommended them for: "acne, asthma, cancer, cholera, coma, convulsions, diabetes, epilepsy, gangrene, gout, herpes, indigestion, insanity, jaundice, leprosy, ophthalmia, plague, pneumonia, scurvy, smallpox, stroke, tetanus, tuberculosis, and for some one hundred other diseases." Leeches' saliva contains an anesthetic compound, which means that a patient wouldn't feel them on his or her skin as the leech removed blood from the body. Leeches tend to drink until they are full, and then they will detach on their own. And, apparently, they were good for pretty much everything.