It’s hard to keep up with the treatment recommendations coming out of the medical community. One day something is good for you, and the next day it’s deadly and should be avoided. Addictive drugs like heroin were given to kids to cure coughs, electric shock therapy has been a long used treatment for impotence, and “miracle” diet pills were handed out like candy. Below are seven of the most shocking treatments recommended by doctors.
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1. Snake Oil—Salesmen and Doctors
While today a “snake oil salesman” is someone who knowingly sells fraudulent goods, the use of snake oil has real, medicinal routes. Extracted from the oil of Chinese water snakes, it likely arrived in the United States in the 1800s, with the influx of Chinese workers toiling on the Transcontinental Railroad. Rich in omega-3 acids, it was used to reduce inflammation and treat arthritis and bursitis, and was rubbed on the workers’ joints after a long day of working on the railroad.
Enter Clark Stanley, “The Rattlesnake King.” Originally a cowboy, Stanley claimed to have studied with a Hopi medicine man who turned him on to the healing powers of snake oil. He took this new found “knowledge” on the road, performing a show-stopping act at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where he reached into a bag, grabbed a rattlesnake, cut it open, and squeezed it. He labeled the extract snake oil, even though the FDA later confirmed that his products didn’t contain any kind of snake oil, rattlesnake or otherwise. That didn’t stop other unscrupulous doctors and fraudulent salesmen, who also started traveling the American West, peddling bottles of fake snake oil, giving the truly beneficial medical treatment a bad name.
2. Cocaine—The Wonder Drug
Around the mid 1880s, scientists were able to isolate the active ingredient of the coca leaf, Erythroxylon coca (later known as cocaine). Pharmaceutical companies loved this new, fast-acting and relatively-inexpensive stimulant.
In 1884, an Austrian ophthalmologist, Carl Koller, discovered that a few drops of cocaine solution put on a patient’s cornea acted as a topical anesthetic. It made the eye immobile and de-sensitized to pain, and caused less bleeding at the site of incision—making eye surgery much less risky. News of this discovery spread, and soon cocaine was being used in both eye and sinus surgeries. Marketed as a treatment for toothaches, depression, sinusitis, lethargy, alcoholism, and impotence, cocaine was soon being sold as a tonic, lozenge, powder and even used in cigarettes. It even appeared in Sears Roebuck catalogues. Popular home remedies, such as Allen’s Cocaine Tablets, could be purchased for just 50 cents a box and offered relief for everything from hay fever, catarrh, throat troubles, nervousness, headaches, and sleeplessness. In reality, the side effects of cocaine actually caused many of the ailments it claimed to cure—causing lack of sleep, eating problems, depression, and even hallucinations.
You didn’t need a doctor’s prescription to purchase it. Some states sold cocaine at bars, and it was, famously, one of the key ingredients in the soon-to-be ubiquitous Coca-Cola soft drink. By 1902, there were an estimated 200,000 cocaine addicts in the U.S. alone. In 1914, the Harrison Narcotic Act outlawed the production, importation, and distribution of cocaine.
3. Vibrators—Cure Your Hysteria
We have 19th-century doctors to thank for the introduction of the vibrator, which was first advertised as a cure for a catch-all, female “disease” known as hysteria. Hysteria was believed to cause any number of maladies, including anxiety, irritability, sexual desire, insomnia, faintness, and a bloated stomach—so almost every woman showed some symptoms. The condition traced its roots back to ancient medical theories about “wandering wombs,” where a displaced (and discontented) uterus caused female ill health.
The treatment? A “pelvic massage” that would induce “hysterical paroxysm”—commonly known as an orgasm. This job lay with Victorian doctors who manually massaged women. In an effort to spare the doctors this work, one ingenious practitioner named Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville created a steam-powered, “electromechanical medical instrument.” Nicknamed the “Manipulator,” the device allowed women to give themselves home massages, allowing them to cure their “wandering wombs.”
4. Fen-Phen—A Miracle Pill for Weight Loss
Today’s weight-loss industry is an estimated $60 billion business, a large portion of which is spent on diet pills. And while the first fat-busting pills went on the market in the late 1880s, no other pills have had quite the speedy rise and fall as Fen-Phen did in the 1990s.Originally released into the market as two separate drugs—the appetite suppressant Fenfluramine and the amphetamine Phentermine—they were marketed as short-term diet aids, but proved largely ineffective on their own. In the late 1970s, however, the two products were combined by Dr. Michael Weintraub to create what became known as Fen-Phen. Weintraub conducted a single study with 121 patients over the course of four years. The patients, two-thirds of which were women, lost an average of 30 pounds with seemingly no side effects—but Weintraub’s study didn’t monitor the patients’ hearts. The new miracle drug was first introduced into the market in 1992, and people could not get enough of it. Some doctors, looking for a quick way to make cash, operated “fen-phen mills,” where desperate patients looking to shed excess weight would pay anything for the pills. Soon, some 6 million Americans were using it.
In April 1996, after a contentious debate, the FDA agreed to approve the drug, pending a one-year trial. Almost immediately, reports of grave side effects started pouring in. That July, the Mayo Clinic said that 24 women taking fen-phen had developed serious heart valve abnormalities. Hundreds of more cases were reported, and by September 1997 the FDA had officially pulled fen-phen. In 1999, the American Home Products Corporation (the producers of fen-phen) agreed to pay a $3.75 billion settlement to those injured by taking the drug. More than 50,000 liability lawsuits were filed in the years following its withdrawal from the market, and patients are still able to file injury claims.
5. Heroin—The Cure for a Cough
How do you cure one drug epidemic? Create a new drug. That’s what happened in the late 1880s, when heroin was introduced as a safe and non-addictive substitute for morphine. Known as diamorphine, it was created by an English chemical researcher named C.R. Alder Wright in the 1870s, but it wasn’t until a chemist working for Bayer pharmaceuticals discovered Wright’s paper in 1895 that the drug came to market.
Finding it to be five times more effective—and supposedly less addictive—than morphine, Bayer began advertising a heroin-laced aspirin in 1898, which they marketed towards children suffering from sore throats, coughs, and cold. Some bottles depicted children eagerly reaching for the medicine, with moms giving their sick kids heroin on a spoon. Doctors started to have an inkling that heroin may not be as non-addictive as it seemed when patients began coming back for bottle after bottle. Despite the pushback from physicians and negative stories about heroin’s side effects pilling up, Bayer continued to market and produce their product until 1913. Eleven years later, the FDA banned heroin altogether.
6. Lobotomies—Hacking Away Troubled Brains
Walter Freeman thought he’d found a way to alleviate the pain and distress of the mentally and emotionally ill. Instead, he created one of history’s most horrific medical treatments. Freeman developed his procedure, which became known as a prefrontal lobotomy, based on earlier research by a Portuguese neurologist. Early versions of Freeman’s “cure” involved drilling holes in the top of his patients’ skulls, and later evolved into hammering an ice pick-like instrument through their eye sockets, to sever the connections between the frontal lobes and the thalamus, which he believed to be the part of the brain that dealt with human emotion.Freeman soon teamed up with James Watts, and after practicing on cadavers, they performed their first procedure on a live patient in 1936, a woman who suffered from agitated depression and sleeplessness. It was deemed a success. But subsequent surgeries were not. Patients were often left in a vegetative state, experienced relapses, and regressed physically and emotionally. As many as 15 percent died. One of the most infamous victims was Rosemary Kennedy, the sister of future President John F. Kennedy, who was left incapacitated and spent the rest of her life needing full-time care.
Freeman was as much a showman as he was a doctor, traveling to 23 states to demonstrate his miracle cure. In all, he performed some 3,439 lobotomies—some on patients not yet in their teens. And despite the obvious risks and lack of concrete success rates, hospitals willingly let Freeman continue, perhaps because lobotomized patients were considered “easier” to deal with. Everything changed in 1967, when Freeman performed a lobotomy on one of his original patients, a housewife living in Berkeley, California. This time, he severed a blood vessel and Mortenson died of a brain hemorrhage—finally putting an end to Freeman’s haphazard brain hacking.
7. Shock Treatments—The Cure for Impotence
The medical profession has had varying opinions on the causes, and possible cures, for impotence. The repressive Victorians honed in on a man’s “moral weakness” as the cause for genital dysfunction, and by the 19th century impotence was thought to be caused by either an excess of sex or masturbation, or too little of it. As surgeon Samuel W. Gross noted in his book, Practical Treatise on Impotence, Sterility, and Allied Disorders of the Male Sexual Organs, “masturbation, gonorrhea, sexual excesses, and constant excitement of the genital organs without gratification,” would lead to impotence.
Some doctors introduced “galvanic baths,” or bathtubs filled with electrodes, which were supposed to restore sexual desire in just six sessions. Others took an even more localized approach, where rods with currents running through them were placed inside the man’s urethra. The treatment would last for five to eight minutes and would be repeated once or twice a week. This was thought to be particularly helpful for those with significant atrophy to the genital area.
Where a buck can be made off an insecure customer, then quack doctors and unsavory businessmen are sure to follow. By the late 1800s ads were running for “electropathic belts” or “electric belts” aimed at “weak men.” They claimed to help cure kidney pains, sciatic nerve issues, backaches, headaches, and nervous exhaustion—but the underlying message was they could cure men’s sexual problems.
While today, impotence is seen as a blend of physical and mental issues, the belief that electric shock therapy is a useful cure for impotence still persists. Studies coming out of Haifa, Israel (2009) and San Francisco, California (2016) both claim there are merits to low-energy shock wave therapy to cure erectile dysfunction.