It’s no secret that medical science has advanced drastically – even in the last 10 years. Thanks to advanced technology and research, every year brings greater promise for treatments and curing disease. To demonstrate the evolution of medicine, we wanted to dig up some weird theories and practices from the days of old. Because it’s fun, and why not?
It’s important to remember where we came from — humankind has worked a long time to reach where we are now. And as you’ll see, the journey was filled with plenty of bizarre happenings and at times, blunders.
1. Phrenology: It’s All in Your Head
Phrenology was an idea popularized in the 1800s that directly associated head size and shape with a person’s temperament and mental capacity. Phrenologists thought that the brain was split into 27 different organs that controlled our emotions and abilities, from “the poetical talent” to “the love of one’s offspring.” One would have their head measured and felt by a phrenologist to learn more about their natural strengths and weaknesses. Let’s say you had a bump on a certain part of your skull — it would mean you have a greater capacity for “the sense of satire.” Then it’s just a matter of booking your next stand-up gig, right?
2. Miasma: The Bad Air Scare
The concept of miasma (bad air) has been around since ancient times. It was specifically used to explain the spread of a few choice diseases throughout history — the most famous example being the Black Death plague. People of the middle ages largely believed that bad air (caused by maligned planets) was the cause of the bubonic plague. They tragically took medical precautions based on misinformation, such as wearing perfume satchels around their nose and mouth, when it was really infected fleas who were the perpetrators. It just goes to show that now we can pinpoint the problem, even if it’s the size of a pinpoint.
3. Humorism: Level Out Your Liquids
Like a lot of outdated medical theories, humorism was the predominant belief for a long time — over 2,000 years to be exact. Today, we know so much about the human body because of imaging technology like CT scans and MRIs. But back in ancient times, people had to make their best guesses about things like bodily fluids and how they affect us. Which brings us to humorism: the idea that our body produces four distinct fluids that correlate with our “humors,” which dictate our health and emotions. There’s blood (enthusiastic and social), yellow bile (independent and decisive), black bile (introverted and sad) and phlegm (relaxed and easygoing).
The Greeks established this approach to medicine, and it was a prevailing practice throughout the 1800s. So yeah, it had a pretty good run. Aside from the incorrectness of the theory, it also sparked some issues when people attempted to balance out their humors. One notable solution was bloodletting, which meant bleeding patients to try and remove excess humors. They believed if one humor was in an unhealthy predominance, this was a good way to even it out. Nowadays this approach would be considered cringeworthy at best.
4. Mercury: Not Just for Planets Anymore!
Unfortunately, pseudo medicine can have some seriously harmful physical effects on the patients. Such was the case for hundreds of years when physicians would prescribe mercury for a slew of ailments. Sometimes it was associated with a way to level out humors (through ingesting orally and subsequently purging one’s body), and sometimes it was seen as a cure for entirely unrelated diseases like syphilis. In fact, Mozart was known to take salts of mercury for his ailments, which some suggest could have been the cause of his death. The silver lining? We get to enjoy the gift of his music, even years later.
5. Bicycle Face: The (Fake) Disease on Wheels
Some throughout history have tried using medical prowess to further their own selfish agendas. In the late 19th century, more and more women became cyclists as a means to gain independence, mobility and freedom during a highly restrictive time. Male doctors in Europe and the United States quickly contrived a fake affliction called “bicycle face,” wherein women cyclists experienced “dark shadows under the eyes” and “an expression of weariness.” Essentially, they warned that women would experience this physical deformity to maintain control over their female counterparts.
Generally, it’s not appropriate to judge our ancestors for putting their best foot forward to advance medical science. But in this case, shake your head and scoff away!
6. Tooth Worms: The Wriggling Cause of Cavities
Your dentist may have told you that eating sugar and poor brushing/flossing habits cause tooth decay. Well they’re lying — it’s actually small worms that live in your teeth! Just kidding. Your dentist is right. But back in the day, people really did believe that tooth decay was caused by an almost microscopic worm eating away at your teeth. The most likely answer for this theory is that diseased tooth pulp looks remarkably similar to a worm when it’s decayed. Again, because of our microscope technology, we can take a closer look to determine this is simply our bodies’ natural response to poor dental hygiene. No worms here, folks!
Hindsight is 20/20
With all the advancements our society has made in the medical field, it’s surprising to look back at old approaches to medicine. But it begs the question: how much further can we go? What will future generations look back upon and write their version of this blog about? We’re truly living in a golden age of medicine — we can book appointments online, video chat with our doctor and access medical health records from our smartphones for goodness sake! But what do you think it will be like hundreds of years from now? Robot surgeons? The ability to cure diseases around the world without ever leaving our hometown?
Share your thoughts and comments below — we’d like to know!