A compendium of weird medical history? Yes please! (Disclaimer: if you just ate or are about to eat, you might want to read this later…)

Perhaps you’re familiar with the use of leeches and bloodletting in medicine, but what about tobacco smoke enemas and electric baths? If your curiosity is piqued, then consider reading Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. Equally enlightening and entertaining, Quackery is a concise history of some of the weirdest medical treatments used over the ages. Physician and novelist Lydia Kang and journalist Nate Pedersen make a great pair writing digestible, witty, and engaging content. Rather than encyclopedic in scope, consider it a primer on medical history. Kang and Pedersen acknowledge that they couldn’t possibly cover everything, but they sure managed to squeeze a lot of information within the book’s 328 pages! The book is organized into five sections as follows:

  • Elements – (mercury, antimony, arsenic, gold, radium & radon)
  • Plants & Soil – (opiates, strychnine, tobacco, cocaine, alcohol, earth)
  • Tools  – (bloodletting, lobotomy, cautery & blistering, enemas & clysters, hydropathy and the cold water cure, surgery, anesthesia)
  • Animals –  (leeches, cannibalism & corpse medicine, animal driven medicines, sex, fasting)
  • Mysterious Powers (electricity, animal magnetism, light, radionics, the king’s touch)

Some of these topics I expected, while others were completely new to me. For example,”the King’s touch” was a treatment for certain mysterious and disfiguring skin diseases, like scrofula, which were called the “king’s evil” because they required the touch of a king to be cured. Who knew?! Apparently no monarchs were harmed in performing these royal curing duties…

Many historical medical treatments revolved around the humoral theory of disease:

It was believed that when the body’s blood, black bile, yellow bile, or phlegm was unbalanced, sickness occurred. So rebalancing via vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, or salivation was necessary. Basically, if it could ooze out of a pore or projectile shoot out of an office, it balanced you.

Any one of the above reactions meant that something was at least happening, ensuring confidence in a treatment no matter the discomfort.

One thing I found particularly interesting was the use of cups and pills made of antimony, a metal used to induce vomiting:

Fashionable in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, cups were made out of antimony, fondly called pecula emetic or calicos vomitorri — basically come version of “puke chalice.” Combined with the acid in wine, the antimony from the cup would form “tartar emetic” — antimony potassium tartrate — and treat the cup holder to a good “healthy” vomit, or at least some diarrhea.

Antimony pills passed through the digestive tract unchanged…and so were reused. Repeatedly.

With our modern eyes it’s easy to look at these treatments in horror. It’s amazing how the humoral theory of disease persisted for so long. After all, the germ-theory of disease wasn’t widely understood and accepted until the late nineteenth century. The first half of the twentieth century wasn’t much better and medicine has certainly come a long way.

The author’s drew very interesting parallels to the present by concluding some chapters with notes on how a particular treatment is still used today. For example, apparently leeches still have a medicinal use in present times! A blood-thinning protein in their saliva is used for preventing blood clots after certain types of reconstructive surgeries. Also, the section on cannibalism and corpse medicine notes how “ingestion of corpses, cooking brains, and suckling blood are all unthinkable today. And yet its commonplace and quite acceptable to use other people’s body parts for medicinal reasons” and lists organ transplants, blood transfusions, and the donation of eggs and sperm as examples.

“Pick your poison” is the pervasive theme of medical history. From mercury-laden infant teething ointments to radium cure-all tonics, it’s amazing that civilization continued! Fortunately we now know that germs cause disease, understand the importance of sanitation, and many more advancements. Medicine has certainly come a long way, but the authors stress that medical quackery certainly isn’t confined to the past:

After all, this book really is just a brief history of the worst ways to cure everything. No doubt, there are more “worst ways” yet to come.

A hundred years or so from now someone will surely write about the odd medical treatments and health fads of our day. Quackery is certainly not confined to the past.