Sometimes I feel like the world of medicine is a backwards place.

I had a recent experience with an othopedic surgeon who was assessing my knee injury and he eyeballs me- saying, “Convince me you need to be here.” i.e. getting treatment from his office. Ummm, excuse me buddy, but that’s not really how this works. If I don’t have to waste my time and money here, then I sure as heck won’t. Pffft! Whatever. So, that in addition to a link my friend Mary P.K. sent my way got me on a research tangent to see what horrors the medical world used to offer as legitimate treatments. Here are 5 of the most bizarre/disturbing/interesting ones I found.


The “Iron Lung”

Children in an “iron lung” – 1937

Children and adults suffering from polio would be encased in these “negative pressure ventilators.” Which helped lungs and muscles to keep pumping even after their illnesses weakened them. It works by lowering the pressure around the chest which expands the rib-cage so air can be drawn into the lungs.

Here’s an story about a Brazilian man who had been in a hospital for 45 years after coming down with polio as a child:

Iron lung ward filled with polio patients 1953

Forced to live in what was called a ‘torpedo’ – effectively a body-encasing iron lung – during his early years, he was forced to create his own ‘universe’ inside the confines of his hospital prison.
His earliest memories are of ‘exploring’ the corridors of each ward in his wheelchair, wandering into the rooms of other children, his only toy being his imagination.

But, with an average life expectancy of just ten years, Paulo and Eliana (his hospital friend) watched all their friends die, one by one. Doctors never understood why Paulo and Eliana outlived the others, but they say the experience, while sad, has brought them closer together. ‘It was difficult,’ says Machado. ‘Each loss was like a dismembering, you know, physical… like a mutilation. Now, there’s just two of us left – me and Eliana.’ The risk of infection is high for Paulo and Eliana, so they rarely travel outside of the hospital [1] [2] [3]


Say Ahhh!!! For the Tonsil Snare

1910 Tonsil Snare

Before this bizarre little contraption was invented by Curtis C. Eves in 1910, chopping out inflamed tonsils was a bloody, messy procedure. (And I thought having my teeth drilled was bad…)

With the tonsil snare doctors were able to literally snare the offending  lymphoid tissue and choke the blood flow right out of it. Then it was just a snip, snap, and a stitch to get back on track. [1]


The “Cold Pack” Treatment

Wet Sheet Pack, 1902, Used to Calm Patients

Hot-headed patient giving you a hard time? Just grab a bunch of wool blankets soaked in cold water and wrap ’em up tight. No more squirming, no more fussing. A few hours left like that ought to cool ’em off.

At least that’s what the nurses around the 1930s might have said in a mental hospital.

So Basically you’d be wrapped up so tightly in cold, wet blankets that you’d be unable to move. And you’d be left that way for hours. What if your nose itches? [1] [2] [3]


Radioactive Water – “A Cure for the Living Dead”

Bottle of Radithor – 1928

Back in the day (the 1920s to be more precise) radioactive water was prescribed by the bottle to cure what ails you.

J.W.A. Bailey was one such company who coined the “living dead” slogan above. His claims of radium water’s benefits sort of bit it when one of his biggest long-time supporters, a Pittsburg steel industry tycoon,  lost massive chunks of his jaw due to radium poisoning.

Guess the “glow” that fountain of youth left you with wasn’t such a healthy one. [1] [2]


The Plague Mask

Leather Plague Mask reproduction

I think I find the plague doctor the most fascinating, because the whole outfit, (Wide brimmed hat, Bird-beaked mask, Red glass eyes, long black coat, and leather breeches) just strikes me as such a frightening image.

I can only imagine becoming ill with the plague and managing to “chin-up” about it, until this monstrous doctor shows up. Once you see that figure leaning over you, suddenly you know it’s your death bed he’s visiting.

1653 Plague doctor illustration

The story behind the mask’s design comes from the 14th century in Europe when the plague was ravenously tearing through the population. And, although it had been around for a while, the first known description of the mask comes from the chief physician to Louis XIII, Charles de Lorme:

The nose [is] half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the [herbs] enclosed further along in the beak. Under the coat we wear boots made in Moroccan leather (goat leather) from the front of the breeches in smooth skin that are attached to said boots, and a short sleeved blouse in smooth skin, the bottom of which is tucked into the breeches. The hat and gloves are also made of the same skin…with spectacles over the eyes. [1] [2] [3]

That would be a sight to scare you half to death.

plague doctor’s mask from around 1700

It reminds me of a story my in-laws shared about when they were fighting their way through a bout of typhoid fever.

My father-in-law, in particular, was so sick and thin during this you could have mistaken him for an under-stuffed scarecrow. So, because of his condition he would have a nurse stop by the house to give him a shot with a massive syringe everyday. He told me that he came to dread the click-click-clicking of her heels.

One day, feverishly, he decided that enough was enough, the scary clicking lady wouldn’t jab him anymore! So he somehow managed to climb out of bed, grab a fire-poker, and wait behind his bedroom door for her to arrive. And when she did? WHACK! He conked her over the head. That scary nurse went running down the street crying he’d gone mad. She was ok, BTW. Alarmed, dismayed, and sporting a bit of lump, but otherwise fine. She never did come back though. A different nurse came to visit my father-in-law after that.

I can only imagine what he might have done if she’d been showing up looking like those plague doctors. lol

19th c morphine syringe in original case

On that happy note… I hope you all have a loverly weekend. And remember, no matter how bad it seems, at least you don’t have to cross paths with any of these treatments.

This post was inspired by a link my good friend Mary P.K. Sent my way. Thanks Mary!

If you’re interested in hearing more about the wayward ways of 1920’s medicine, you should check out this review I did of the true crime novel “Charlatan.”

3 thoughts

    1. Yeah, that’s an definitely an image for nightmare fuel. Hooray for terrifying information! I was exposed to that a little young add well. My mom was a nurse, so she had all sorts of informative yet disturbing tomes having around. The disease textbooks in particular still give me the heebie-jeebies – mostly the skin ones. 0.o


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