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12 Ancient Health Practices That Killed People Quicker Than Just Doing Nothing

Updated February 26, 2019 259.4k views12 items

The history of the medical profession is a history of trials and errors. As doctors, researchers, and barbers have searched for cures for various maladies, they've tried some unique 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 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 violated ethical standards, on staggering levels.

Looking over this list of misguided and just plain absurd ancient health customs does make you wonder what procedures we use today that future generations will be horrified by.

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  • Arsenic

    Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

    Arsenic is an element that is also deadly poison, but that hasn't stopped anyone from using it medically. Arsenic has been used as a tonic to treat psoriasis, syphilis, trypanosomiasis, ulcers, abscesses, fever, and headaches, 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.

    • Heroin and Cocaine

      Heroin and cocaine have all been prescribed by doctors as medicinal treatments at different 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 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

        The ancient Egyptians used a paste made up of mashed mice as a treatment for toothaches and other maladies. Simply apply the mouse creme to the afflicted area (or, for extreme cases, a whole mouse) and watch that area improve — or more likely, the areas became infected due to the application of possibly diseased tissues on an open wounds. Due to the hazardous and unhelpful nature of applying mice paste to wounds, the practice ceased. It was revitalized in Elizabethan England where scientists believed the application of a deceased mouse could help alleviate wharts.

        • Cutting Teeth

          Photo: Internet Archive Book Images / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

          French surgeon Ambroise Paré  popularized a 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.