Here are five historical medical remedies that we would balk at today.
Lysol for birth control
Before the oral contraceptive pill hit the market in the 1960s, post-coital vaginal douching was seen as a cheap and effective way of preventing pregnancy. One of the most popular brands was Lysol, something we recognise today as being a household disinfectant, which was heavily marketed by the company as a “feminine hygiene” product.
However, this was just a euphemism for pregnancy as, until 1965, contraception was illegal in America. “Germs” was code for sperm, and keeping your “dainty feminine allure” meant preventing getting pregnant.
The massive advertising campaign made Lysol the best-selling method of contraception during the Great Depression.
But it didn’t even work.
The method involved douching a diluted solution of Lysol in order to “prevent infections and vaginal odor, thereby preserving youth and marital bliss”. Yet a 1933 study, showed 250 of 507 women who used the disinfectant for contraception got pregnant.
Not only that, but it was incredibly dangerous.
The original formulation of Lysol contained cresols, a toxic compound derived from coal tar, which has a long list of side-effects including irritation and burning of skin, eyes, mouth, and throat; abdominal pain and vomiting; heart damage; anemia; liver and kidney damage; facial paralysis; coma; and ultimately death.
When chemical contraception failed, some women still turned to douching Lysol, increasing the dose to induce an abortion. This normally resulted in sepsis and uterine necrosis, causing them to need a hysterectomy.
Despite this, Lysol continued being advertised as “gentle,” “non-caustic,” and “will not harm delicate tissue.”
Following multiple lawsuits, in 1952 the manufacturer eventually changed the formula, removing the carcinogenic cresol, instead using ortho-hydroxydiphenyl making Lysol only a quarter as toxic.
Morphine for teething babies
Hitting shelves in 1849, Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was hailed as a miracle remedy for children with teething troubles and babies suffering from colic, with claims that the product would greatly facilitate the process of teething, allay all pain and spasmodic action, regulate the bowels, and ‘give rest to mothers and relief and health to infants.’
The patented formula consisted of 65mg of morphine sulphate, sodium carbonate, “spirits foeniculi” (alcohol), and aqua ammonia. Things we wouldn’t consider giving to children nowadays.
In 1905, magazine Collier’s Weekly published a series of articles under the banner The Great American Fraud, detailing the effect of unproven medicines.
“Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup is extensively used among the poorer classes as a means of pacifying their babies. These children eventually come into the hands of physicians with a greater or less addiction to the opium habit. The sight of a parent drugging a helpless infant into a semi-comatose condition is not an elevating one for this civilized age, and it is a very common practice.”
Mrs Winslow wasn’t the only person pushing drugs on kids, there were hundreds of potentially lethal medicines being marketed for use on children. A 1910 New York Times article warned parents of the dangers of so-called ‘soothing syrups’.
‘It has been generally known by doctors, though not by any considerable number of the public or parents, that the so-called baby syrups, soothing syrups, “colic cures,” children’s anodynes, “infant’s friends,” and teething concoctions contain pernicious habit-forming drugs.’
The article went on to list the deadly ingredients.
“morphine sulphate, chloroform, morphine hydrochloride, codeine, heroin, powdered opium, cannabis indica, and combinations of these dangerous ‘soothers’ supply the active principle in nearly all the soothing syrups sold.”
The American Medical Association issued a publication in 1911, titled Nostrums And Quackery. Children’s medicines, predominantly Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, were mentioned in a dedicated section subtly headed “Baby Killers”.
However, Mrs Winslow enjoyed success up until 1930 when it eventually fell out of favour as parents finally cottoned on to the fact it was doing more harm than good.
Mercury for syphilis
As early as the 15th century and as late as the early 20th century, mercury was used as a cure for syphilis despite being known to have side-effects, inspiring the clever warning “two minutes with Venus, a lifetime with mercury”. The idea was that repeated treatments would cause the patient to salivate, which was thought to expel the disease.
The mercury was administered to patients in various ways, including rubbing it on the skin, application of a plaster, orally in various forms, and even injection. Treatments also involved “fumigating” patients by vaporising mercury over a fire and having them sit over the hot coals on a bottomless seat, or by encasing their bodies in a large box with only their heads exposed.
People have known the effects of mercury poisoning for hundreds of years, so you’d be right to wonder why people would risk suffering uncomfortable swellings, discolouration, terrible itching, burning pains, the sensation of small insects crawling under the skin, hair loss, nail loss, tooth loss, and neurological problems.
The reason is that syphilis was a whole lot worse.
Today, syphilis is considered a minor problem and easily treatable, but historically it terrified people. First recorded in 1495 amongst French troops in Naples, the ‘French disease’ swept across Europe like the plague. The French, understandably reluctant to be associated with an STD, called it the “Italian disease”, with the Dutch calling it the “Spanish disease”, the Russians the “Polish disease”, and the Turks labelling it “Christian disease”.
Sufferers developed open, weeping sores, spreading all over their body, which, as they got deeper, would cause lumps of flesh to just fall away, leaving gaping holes. It normally started at extremities with people losing eyes, noses, lips, and even hands and feet. Eventually, the disease would attack the brain, driving people insane before the sweet release of death.
The feeling of insects crawling under your skin doesn’t sound so bad now, does it.
Mercury was the only effective treatment up until 1910 with the invention of Salvarsan, and later penicillin.
Urine for good health
In the first half of the 20th century, urine therapy became a big thing in the world of alternative medicine. The treatment involves treatments ranging from massaging it into the skin and hair to — you’ve probably already guessed — drinking it.
The practice was made popular by British naturopath John W. Armstrong, after he interpreted the biblical passage Proverbs 5:15 “Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well”.
Over the years, Armstrong treated thousands of patients with urine therapy, and in 1944 he published The Water of Life: A treatise on urine therapy, which became a founding document of the movement.
Although there is no scientific evidence of a therapeutic use for untreated urine, it is still reasonably popular today with proponents touting it as a tonic to immunise against allergies, ease coughs and colds, generally improve well-being, and even as having anti-cancer effects.
Radium water for everything
When radium was first discovered in 1898 by Marie Curie, it was lauded as being the cure for all ills. People believed it could simply improve their sense of well-being or even completely reverse ageing. In 1903 the Chicago Daily Tribune reported “There are men who affirm that … in fact, this yellow atom, so insignificant in appearance, eventually will prove one of the greatest boons to ailing mankind that ever was discovered.”
Who could have blamed them, after all, it definitely gave people a nice glow.
Lots of companies jumped on the bandwagon, marketing various radioactive health products from uranium blankets to radon belt-buckles but it was radium water that caught the public’s attention, touted as being an “elixir of life”.
It became all the rage, especially in fashionable Paris where men and women could enjoy an “afternoon radium cure”, socialising in spacious drawing rooms, whilst basking in the circulation of radium emanations and supping delicious radium water. The medicinal drink was created by pouring water into an “earthenware receptacle” containing a small amount of radium, eventually “charging” the water with emanations.
In 1931, Dr. Luther S.H. Gable, a self-professed radium expert of the Detroit Institute of Technology, admitted he regularly drank a radium fruit juice to maintain peak physical condition.
Despite years of female watch-factory workers reporting ill-effects from painting radium onto dials to make them glow in the dark, it wasn’t until the high-profile death of industrialist Eben M. Byers in 1932 that people started to believe radium wasn’t a miracle cure after all.
Byers had been advised by his doctor to drink radium water in order to ease a persistent arm injury. After two years of daily supping multiple doses of “Certified Radioactive Water” Radithor, Byers eventually stopped in October 1930 when he felt it was no longer having an effect.
It had an effect.
The Federal Trade Commission, investigating the company behind Radithor, wanted Byers to testify against them, sending a lawyer to take a statement. Reports came back that Byers’ “whole upper jaw, excepting two front teeth, and most of his lower jaw had been removed”, and that “All the remaining bone tissue of his body was disintegrating, and holes were actually forming in his skull.” This prompted the incredible Wall Street Journal headline — “The Radium Water Worked Fine until His Jaw Came Off”.
After Byers’ death in 1932, the FTC cracked down on sellers of radium sellers, bringing the fad to a hard stop.