historical facts 12 Ancient Health Practices that Killed People Quicker Than Just Doing Nothing  

David Sharp
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The history of the medical profession is a history of trials and errors - emphasis on the errors. As doctors, researchers, and barbers have searched for cures for various maladies, they've tried some very strange ancient health practices in the name of science, with many of these "cures" leading to a host of health problems of their own.

The reason the Hippocratic Oath exists is, in part, to help protect patients from overzealous doctors who think that their wildly experimental "cure" is the best treatment, regardless of how bad it may be for the patient. But before the words of Hippocrates were widely known, some things ancient people did for their health definitely violated ethical standards, to say the least.

Looking over this list of cruel, misguided, and just plain absurd ancient health customs does make you wonder what procedures we use today that future generations will be totally horrified by... but at least we're not shoving crocodile dung inside of us, right?


Leeching/Bleeding is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 12 Ancient Health Practices that Killed People Quicker Than Just Doing Nothing
Photo:  Guillaume van den Bossche/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Some ancient doctors subscribed to the theory that the body is governed by four "bodily humours:" black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. When a person fell ill, they believed that this was due to an imbalance of the humours, which could often be corrected by simply getting rid of some of that pesky blood. Leeches were frequently the instrument of choice for this "operation" due to their natural blood-sucking tendencies. However, many surgeons would just cut open a vein and let out a pint or two.

Bloodletting was prescribed by doctors in ancient Greece, Egypt, and Europe (even into the 19th century) for everything from fever, infection, acne, headaches, diabetes, epilepsy, and more. While giving blood can have some health benefits (especially in men at risk of heart attack), most doctors agree that your blood is more effective inside your body rather than out - though modern doctors have successfully used leeches to aid in difficult reattachment surgeries.

Animal Dung

Animal Dung is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list 12 Ancient Health Practices that Killed People Quicker Than Just Doing Nothing
Photo: Jerome Bon/Wikimedia Commons

A number of ancient cultures have used animal dung of all sorts to treat a wide variety of illnesses. The ancient Egyptians would rub it on wounds - and in their eyes - and even use it as a contraceptive. Crocodile dung was formed into a kind of proto-diaphragm that, not surprisingly, was not only ineffective at preventing pregnancy (actually, it may have increased the odds of conception) it also came with its own set of health complications. Turns out, putting poop inside your body can lead to infections. Huh. 

While fecal transplants are a totally legitimate form of medical treatment, that procedure is a long way away from the practice of using pig dung to stop a nosebleed like the ancient Scots.


Trepanning is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list 12 Ancient Health Practices that Killed People Quicker Than Just Doing Nothing
Photo: Hieronymous Bosch/Public Domain/via Wikimedia Commons

"Trepanning" is the medical name for "drilling a hole in your head." While archeologists, anthropologists, and medical professionals are confused as to why people thought this was a good idea, there is a long history of boring into peoples skulls as a treatment for epilepsy, mental disorders, and paradoxically, to relieve headaches. Skulls have been found with holes in them across Europe, Africa, and the Americas - some even showing bone growth, which points to patients actually surviving this brutal treatment. 

While trepanning is still occasionally practiced today, most doctors agree that its best usage is not the release of evil spirits trapped inside the skull.


Urine is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 12 Ancient Health Practices that Killed People Quicker Than Just Doing Nothing
Photo:  Anonymous/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

If humans have tried using feces for health purposes, one would probably imagine they've tried using urine as well - and one would imagine correctly. Urine has been used by a number of cultures as both a tool for diagnosis and as a treatment for wide spectrum of ailments. Pee has been used as a cleaning agent, as makeup, and no less an authority as Madonna has claimed to use it to cure athlete's foot. The ancient Romans even used it as a tooth whitener, which begs the question: what kind of mouthwash do you use to get the taste of your mouthwash out of your mouth? And yes, Tyler Durden, in some cases it is not necessarily harmful to drink your own pee, but frequently it is - urine can be highly toxic, especially if it isn't your own and it's not fresh. And it's always gross.


Arsenic is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list 12 Ancient Health Practices that Killed People Quicker Than Just Doing Nothing
Photo: Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons

Arsenic is an element that is also deadly poison - not that that's ever stopped anyone from using it medically. Arsenic has been used as a tonic to treat psoriasis, syphilis, trypanosomiasis, ulcers, abscesses, fever, and headache, and a number of doctors, both real and quack, have extolled its virtues.

The late 1800s and early 1900s saw a resurgence in medical arsenic treatment with a number of over-the-counter versions popping up across Europe and America. "Fowler's Solution" was a best-selling brand that made its way into pharmacopeias of the time, and women frequently used it as a beauty product for their skin and hair. While the naturally occurring compound has been used recently to fight leukemia and other cancers, the vast majority of its "medical" applications have just been low-grade poisonings.

Hard Drugs!

Hard Drugs! is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list 12 Ancient Health Practices that Killed People Quicker Than Just Doing Nothing
Photo: McClure's Magazine/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Heroin and cocaine have all been prescribed by doctors as medicinal treatments at points in history. Since its introduction in 1874, heroin has been used as a painkiller, an anti-diuretic, and even as a cough suppressant frequently given to children. Cocaine has also been used as a painkiller and numbing agent, as well as an analgesic, a dandruff cure, and (surprise), a stimulant. While these drugs were introduced with the most altruistic intentions, their recreational (and highly addictive) nature has rendered them far less effective as treatments and relegated them to only occasional legitimate usage.

Mouse Paste

Mouse Paste is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list 12 Ancient Health Practices that Killed People Quicker Than Just Doing Nothing
Photo: LACMA/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

The ancient Egyptians used a paste made up of mashed mouse as a treatment for toothaches, earaches, and other maladies. Simply apply your creme-de-rodent to the afflicted area (or, for extreme cases, a whole dead mouse) and watch that area improve... or more likely become infected due to your application of dead and possibly diseased tissues to open wounds. Due to the hazardous and unhelpful nature of applying dead mice to wounds, the practice died out. Until it was revitalized in Elizabethan England where, for some unknown reason, scientists believed the application of a dead mouse could help alleviate whooping cough, small pox, and - somehow - bed wetting.

Cutting Teeth

Cutting Teeth is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list 12 Ancient Health Practices that Killed People Quicker Than Just Doing Nothing
Photo: Internet Arcgive Book Images/Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

French surgeon Ambroise Paré  popularized this totally unnecessary practice of cutting open a teething infant's gums to help encourage growth in the 1500s. Paré observed a case where a teething infant died and drew the conclusion that the child's untimely end was due to his incoming teeth being obstructed, and much of the rest of Europe followed along. 

Turns out that not only does cutting not help the teething process, it can come with its own set of complications. Also, children seemed to hate it for some reason. While the practice has thankfully died off, "cutting your teeth" still lives on idiomatically - so at least it was good for something.