These Bizarre Medical Treatments From the Past Show Medical Knowledge Has Come a Long Way

Today, there are countless treatments for tons of diseases, but medicine had to start somewhere. From ancient times all the way up through the mid 1900s, doctors were using some of the most shocking remedies you can imagine to cure common ailments like migraines, open cuts, and more. Here are some of the most insane ways doctors once attempted to cure disease.

Moldy bread

Moldy Bread on a table.

Moldy bread was once believed to have medical benefits. | Yucelozber/Getty Images

The technique of applying moldy bread to wounds was popular in places like Ancient Greece, China, and Serbia. The idea was that the bacteria in the bread would prevent infections — similar to the way penicillin prevents infections today. People thought these tactics influenced the gods responsible for disease and helped them cure a patient. We know today that it was actually raw forms of antibiotics that stopped the infection.

Next: This is not the toothache cure you’d expect.

Dead mouse paste

Mouse eating food.

Mice were used as a surprising medical remedy. | Pixabay/Getty Images

In Egyptian times, there was no easy cure for a toothache. Instead, the Egyptians would mash up a dead mouse to create a paste out of it, and apply some to the infected area. If the tooth ache was painful enough, the entire mouse would be applied to the area. Years later, we know this doesn’t work. Plus, it probably brought a lot of disease into the mouths of many Egyptians.

Next: This insane headache cure caused more harm than good.


An X-ray of a skull.

Skulls were often drilled as a medical practice. | Daboost/Getty Images

Any form of skull trauma or neurological disease, or even a migraine, warranted trepanation in ancient times. During this process, doctors would drill holes through the skull of a living person with the hopes of relieving some of the pain. This was often unsuccessful, and the skull never healed. Some people may have also used it for certain rituals.

Next: This is still used in medicine today but for different reasons. 

Urine diagnosis

Doctor holding a bottle of urine sample.

We’ve come a long way in how we analyze our health. | Csaba Deli/iStock/Getty Images

Urine used to be used as the primary way of diagnosing disease. Patients would give the doctors a urine sample, and the doctors would examine its color, smell, and sometimes even its taste. Then, they’d determine if anything was wrong with the patient. Spoiler alert: this did not always work. Today, doctors still use urine to test for various diseases, but the tests go far beyond those original three factors. Plus, we know now that not every disease affects urine.

Next: People once thought sheep were the source of human blood.

Sheep liver diagnosis

A heard of sheep on a field.

Sheep were used in healing ailments. | Heebyj/iStock/Getty Images

Sacrificed sheep played a big role in medicine years ago in Mesopotamia. At the time, people thought sheep’s liver was the source of human blood. Healers diagnosed illnesses by examining sacrificed sheep’s livers to figure out what type of disease was affecting humans. Shockingly, this method is no longer used.

Next: This treatment is actually still used for oral cancer.


A woman sticks her tongue out.

A painful remedy. | Utkamandarinka/Getty Images

In the 1800s, doctors believed that cutting out part of the patient’s tongue would stop a stutter. They performed the surgery on many patients throughout the 19th century. However, the surgery was unsuccessful. Today, a hemiglossectomy might be used in patients with oral cancer, but it’s definitely not used to treat stutters.

Next: This treatment was not even used on the actual patient.

Powder of sympathy

A powder on a white table.

A “magical” powder was thought to treat wounds. | Coprid/Getty Images

This treatment was different from most. A mixture of pigs’ brains, worms, mummified corpses, and rust were combined to form a powder that was then applied to the weapon used to cause an injury. Yes, the weapon — not the injured person. This “magical” powder was supposed to treat that wound by bringing sympathy to the weapon used.

Next: This poisonous substance was once thought to cure several diseases.


Arsenic inside a vial.

Arsenic was once used in treatment for diseases like malaria. | Jarun011/Getty Images

While this substance is a well-known poison, in ancient times, it was also used to heal diseases like malaria and syphilis. Some believed it could treat arthritis and diabetes, too. Women even used it as a cosmetic. In the early 2000s, the FDA approved arsenic for use in certain types of leukemia.

Next: Oil from this animal was used to treat joint pain.

Snake oil

A snake being held in a person's hand.

Snake oil was an ancient medical remedy.  | Talitha_it/iStock/Getty Images

Oil from the Chinese water snake has been used for years to cure joint pain. CBS reported that even some Americans have been known to try it out. Today, some avid believers do still use it for that specific purpose, although there are many other more reliable treatment options around.

Next: This is the first known form of contraception.

Crocodile dung

Freshwater Crocodiles swimming in water.

Crocodile dung was once used as a contraceptive. | Anakeseenadee/iStock/Getty Images

Ancient Egyptians once thought that crocodile dung could be used as a contraceptive. They believed a mixture of the dung along with honey and sodium carbonate could be inserted to block and kill sperm. There’s no word on whether or not it actually worked — or who came up with the idea.

Next: This drug was laced into wine to create a medicinal drink.


Lines of cocaine on a black table.

Cocaine was the main ingredient in this remedy. | Majo1122331/Getty Images

In 1863, chemist Angelo Mariani created a “tonic wine” made with red Bordeaux wine and coca leaves, and claimed it would cure anything. It was supposed to provide an energy boost to anyone who drank it and perk up even the sickest person. That’s probably because it had a pretty high dose of cocaine in it — six milligrams per glass, with a recommended serving size of two or three glasses per day. Eventually, the effects of cocaine were realized, and the tonic wine was no more.

Next: This early form of plastic surgery ended up causing cancer.

Paraffin wax

A person melts wax into a container.

This wax is potentially dangerous. | Oksanak48/Getty Images

In the early 1900s, paraffin wax was commonly used during plastic surgery. It was a hot wax that was then molded and shaped into the desired shape. However, it was later discovered that the wax could cause cancer in the form of “paraffinomas.” This is when the wax would shift and create dangerous lumps elsewhere in the body.

Next: One doctor claimed he could cure infertility with these.

Goat testicles

Goats on a summer pasture.

This cure did not work for infertility. | MilaDrumeva/Getty Images

John Brinkley had the world fooled when he claimed that he could cure infertility by sewing goat testicles into the scrotum. In fact, so many people believed him that his bogus procedure quickly made him a millionaire. He manipulated his patients into thinking this would solve their biggest problem. It was eventually realized that his method did not work, and Brinkley was exposed for being a fraud.

Next: This children’s medicine contained addictive ingredients

Children’s soothing syrups

Syrup being poured onto a spoon.

Children’s syrups were full of morphine and alcohol. | SteveMcsweeny/Getty Images

In the 1800s, pharmacists claimed these syrups helped heal children’s ailments and prevent them from fussing. That’s possibly because its two main ingredients were morphine and alcohol. The syrup was denounced by the American Medical Association in 1911, but it was on store shelves until 1930.

Next: This deadly drug also helps a cough subside.  


Heroine and a needle on a table.

Heroine was often prescribed for ailments. | Backpack555/Getty Images

Believe it or not, people used to take heroin to help stop a cough. Since then, it’s been realized that heroin is horribly addictive, and it has created one of the worst drug crises the United States has ever seen. However, in the late 1800s, people would buy bottles labeled “heroin” on drugstore shelves like it was nothing.

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