• Weird History

10 Surprising Lasts In The History Of Medicine

List RulesVote up the most surprising medical history lasts.

What qualifies as "medicine" definitely varies by historical period and context, with clear changes over time. Medicine continues to develop and adapt as technology allows - and as need dictates.

In the ancient world, the practice of medicine involved some scary devices and seemingly ridiculous treatments, especially through the medieval period. In hindsight, even in the 19th and 20th centuries, some medical diagnoses, treatments, and cures seem incredibly misguided.

Through the very long history of medicine, numerous practices have fallen by the wayside due to new discoveries, uncovered applications, and the simple collection of information over time. If you look closely, you can see when some changes in the science of medicine itself actually came to an end. Surprisingly, you might also get a look at an aspect of medical history you thought was long gone, but still lingers in the contemporary world. 

  • Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Common / CC-BY 4.0

    Arsenic Was The 'Magic Bullet' For Syphilis Until The Development Of Penicillin

    In 1909, the development of a drug called Salvarsan signaled a shift in medical treatments in general. Prior to Salvarsan, medications were used to treat a broad spectrum of ailments and symptoms. When Paul Ehrlich introduced his arsenic-based drug, however, it was intended to treat one disease: syphilis. 

    From the 15th century, syphilis had spread throughout Europe and Asia, with high pandemic-level cases by the 20th century. Ehrlich, a German chemist, and his collaborators, Sahachiro Hata and Alfred Bertheim, tested hundreds of arsenic compounds until they found one that could be used to combat the deadly disease - a "magic bullet."

    The result, Salvarsan, was effective, widely received by the medical community, and the most prescribed medication for syphilis until the introduction of penicillin in 1943. Penicillin was safer for physicians and patients, especially since handling and administering Salvarsan was, in Ehrlich's words, "fraught with danger." 

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  • Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    Abraham Lincoln Took Mercury For Depression Until 1861  

    Mercury was used as a treatment for a host of ailments throughout history. From constipation to parasitic infestation to syphilis, mercury was ingested and applied as a topical medicine. During the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, the "blue mass" - a mercury-based pill - was popular in Europe and the United States.

    Recipes for blue mass pills varied. At the core of the concoction was mercury, but honey, sugar, and other substances were also added. It could also be taken as a syrup.

    President Abraham Lincoln, described as "a sad-looking man; his melancholy dripped from him as he walked," was known to take blue mass pills for "hypochondriasis" (or melancholy) during the 1850s. Lincoln's colleague, John T. Stuart, advised "him to take blue-mass pills, and he did take them before he went to Washington, and for five months while he was president." Stuart continued, in 1861, Lincoln, "told me he had ceased using them because they made him cross."

    Blue mass didn't disappear from the market, however. It was featured in the 1871 Yearbook of Pharmacy, and instructions on how to produce blue mass efficiently and effectively was included in the Practical Druggist and Pharmaceutical Review of Reviews as late as 1917.  

    Although mercury is still found in some medications today, blue mass was especially toxic and may have caused mercury poisoning in many of the individuals who took it. Mercury as a cure for melancholy or depression is no longer a standard of care, with an increased understanding that exposure to the element may actually cause the ailment. 

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  • Photo: Henry Benjamin Roberts / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    Performing A Tongue Resection For Stuttering Was Popular Through The 1840s

    Physicians since antiquity theorized about the causes of stuttering, with the prevailing idea that it was caused by an excessively shaped or sized tongue. In 1841, German surgeon Johann Frederick Dieffenbach developed an operation to correct speech defects that involved cutting out a triangular wedge of the tongue. 

    Called a "hemiglossectomy," the procedure was adapted by other surgeons throughout Europe, individuals who, "by cutting in different ways, aspired to the honour of being the inventors of some new method." In the end, Dr. Dieffenbach's patients - and those of his minions - experienced little in the way of permanent solutions to stuttering. 

    Although tongue resections are still conducted today, they are no longer used to address stuttering and speech impediments. Rather, hemiglossectomies are done in the event of a tumor on the tongue or in the tissue surrounding it. 

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  • Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 4.0

    Electric Shocks Are Still Used To Cure Sexual Maladies

    Low-grade electric shock stimulation to male sex organs isn't unheard of in 21st century medicine, but through the late 18th, 19th, and into the early 20th century, it was used to combat "inappropriate" penis performance of several kinds. Both ends of the spectrum were addressed, with efforts to cure impotence and combat overstimulation alike.

    For the former, physician James Graham developed a "celestial bed" during the 1770s that featured electricity alongside aromas and music to stimulate users. Physicians also administered "sparks" to patients to stimulate "nerve and muscle function," or attached electrodes that delivered currents directly to the urethra.

    Electric shock was used for men who were overly sexual to "revive" them, but also as a way of stimulating men suffering from "pollution and impotence." It was also prescribed for men who struggled with the "morbid aphrodisiac element of unrequited love."

    In still one more technique, electric currents were applied to genitals through rings and belts. According to one work from the 1880s, some devices were used to deter ejaculation, but the Harness Electropathic Belt, sold during the late 1880s, cured "hysteria" and increased the "secretions" in various organs. 

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