5 Painful (Or Painfully Pointless) Medical Theories And Practices

Nobody particularly enjoys going to the doctor’s, but it’s probably safe to say that the experience now is a tiny bit more palatable than it has been for, well, the rest of human history. The following is a list of reasons we no longer have for skipping out on our appointments:

Humorism and Bloodletting


Laughter, they say, cures anything. Unfortunately Humourism had nothing to do with laughter, (except for the fact that it’s principles seem laughable now, of course) and everything to do with balancing four arbitrary substances in the body. It was an optimistically ordered view of bodily processes that corresponded with the seasons and the elements: Blood with spring and air, Yellow bile with summer and fire, Black bile with autumn and earth and Phlegm with winter and water. In itself, the belief sounds rather harmless. But this was a system at the root of medicine that persisted across Europe and the Middle East into the 19th Century. Though medicine did find valid cures and occasionally made the correct links to how diseases are transmitted, it was built on fundamentally flawed principles that typically held back advances. You can’t really put a death-toll on that, but it’s certainly a negative effect.


Most famously, Humourism gave rise to bloodletting and the use of leeches. If your humours were imbalanced in favour of blood, you could set things straight by puncturing arteries or by sticking a leech on the same area (or all over the body, as was the fashion). How did you know how much blood to let? Well, fainting was considered a good time to stop. Either way, making new wounds on the body rarely has a positive effect.

Humourism was arguably a social problem too: if you had too much of one of the humours, you became a certain character type (‘Phlegmatic’, ‘Sanguine’, ‘Melancholic’, ‘Choleric’). This came to a head (err, literally) when Humourism died out, only to be replaced with the equally ridiculous concepts of Phrenology, Physiognomy and Craniometry. Rather than suggesting relatively harmless character types, these pseudo-sciences were used to justify the marginalisation of social classes, races and more.



Humans can be rather simple creatures when it comes down to it, and Mercury makes us very simple creatures indeed. You don’t need to know that it’s a liquid metal at room temperature to enjoy it, you just need to appreciate how shiny it is, nothing more, nor less. Rather than being suspicious of this freak metal, historical uses of the stuff included coating felt (which may have spawned the phrase ‘as mad as a hatter’) and in the first millennial kingdoms of Islamic Spain, decorative pools of the stuff were built.

Though the dangers of Mercury poisoning are now widely understood, it easy to appreciate why you’d have let the doctor go anywhere near you with it. Alchemists considered Mercury the first form of all metals, and from its appearance alone it may as well have been liquid magic. So it was used to cure everything by being either applied directly to wounds or ingested. The survival rate wasn’t great, but then, any trends were kind of hard to discern when doctors had such a lousy reputation anyway.


Urine Therapy

Urine Therapy

Compared to the endless fascination of Mercury, urine seems to lack, I don’t know, a certain something? For me, the strangest historical use of urine goes to the Gauls, who were reputed to use it to whiten their teeth. Just seems to me that you’d assume they’d go more yellow, by association.

Like all incredibly bad medicine, it reputedly cures just about everything, including headline grabbers like cancer. And yes, that’s right, people are still practicing urine therapy in the absence of any evidence it works. At least it prevents the transmission of cooties and other serious diseases. Would you kiss someone who drank their own?



Today, hysteria is an irritating piece of Journalese wheeled out to condemn any supposedly overblown reaction. At the time of writing, hysteria was in headlines describing health and safety law, immigration reform, global warming, financial deficit, bin collection and Justin Bieber. Basically, you apply the label liberally any time you wish to instantly belittle and render a position ineffective. Until shamefully recently, it was a medical diagnosis used to subjugate a group of people who have always been shouted down: women.

Questioning the unfair or fundamentally inhumane treatment you receive at the hands of you husband, male family member or associate? You probably have female hysteria, at least in the 19th Century when the diagnosis had evolved into a psychological problem. At the root of the problem was sexual appetite. The treatment? Erm, massaging the ‘woman’s area’. As consistent with the entire history of relations between the sexes, men found doing this by hand so boring that they invented the vibrator to do it for them. Furthermore, there’s a curious disassociation between cures for hysteria and sexual pleasure, but then, women weren’t supposed to enjoy intercourse anyway. Or anything at all, probably.



Lobotomy makes me chiefly think of zany cartoons, but the reality is rather damning. In fact, the cartoon association betrays the time period of Lobotomy, which was a product of the 1930s that thrived for two decades before ultimately dying out in the 70s (like the animated short film). In the context of the rise of Nazi Germany, the atom bomb and the Cold War, surgically cutting the prefrontal cortex of a psychiatric patient with an adapted ice-pick seems only slightly less genuinely insane.

Whilst the west struggled with McCarthyism and kept lobotomizing patients, the USSR took the lead and banned the procedure in 1950, recognizing that it was ‘contrary to the principles of humanity’. Meanwhile, Antonio Egas Moniz, the man who perfected the procedure, was even awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1949. The tragedy was, as it is has been in so many times in the past, that people in a position of power didn’t just fool people into believing that such a radical, scientifically unsubstantiated procedure was in anyway beneficial: they fooled themselves too.

Steph Wood is a blogger and writer for no win no fee compensation claims company Claims4negligence.co.uk. Hopefully your doctor will never negligently botch your lobotomy.

Posted by on August 9, 2011. Filed under Health, History, The List. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.