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

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 practices that were common during this period. These gruesome medical practices from the 1800s included everything from the ingestion of toxic substances to the application of leeches for bloodletting. 

  • They Drilled Holes In Skulls To Improve General Health

    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 the historical lobotomy.

    Interestingly, trepanning is still used today to treat skull fractures and brain swelling, as opposed to its "general" use in the 19th century. 

  • They Took Mercury To Treat STDs

    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 terminate bacteria, and it was especially prevalent in the treatment of STDs. Unfortunately, the main ingredient in Calomel is mercury, which is extremely toxic.

    Some of the side effects of this drug include bloody diarrhea, kidney failure, shortness of breath, and even brain impairment.

  • They Gave Babies Sedative Cocktails

    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 would end one's life (unless too much was given), it may be disturbing to think that the children were calmed by this treatment due to its extremely sedative ingredients. 

  • They Drained Blood In Order To Balance The Body Out

    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

    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 it wasn't a popular option, even during limb amputations. In addition, the pain reliever 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 Commonly Administered For Psychiatric Patients

    Lobotomies Were Commonly Administered For Psychiatric Patients
    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.