FWBW 12: Curious Cures, Rank Remedies and Questionable Quacks


In my article entitled Raising Awareness Under The Intense Heat of the Spotlight, I talked about time-traveling teen Michael J. Fox a.k.a. Marty McFly. This week, I thought it might be fun for us to do some time-traveling of our own. I know that many of us are very frustrated about the cocktail of meds we have to take along with the constant doctors’ visits and being prodded and poked with needles. It particularly pisses me off when a medicine I am taking causes side effects that require me to take another medicine. I recently had to discontinue one med as it was making me feel worse than I did before my diagnosis – anyone for medically induced joint pain and overwhelming fatigue? In fact, as I write I haven’t eaten all bloody day, probably because my lovely Metformin is once again causing my bowels to turn somersaults.

However, all this pales in comparison to what people had to endure in ages past. This article was inspired by a BBC kids’ program called Horrible Histories. They have a section called Historical Hospital and it humorously depicts how physicians from different eras might have treated patients for certain conditions.

I started off by researching the history of thyroid disease and was surprised and impressed to learn that the Chinese were treating goiters with iodine-containing burnt sponge and seaweed as far back as 1600 B.C. As we know today, many thyroid conditions are caused by iodine deficiencies and so some patients take kelp supplements to improve their condition.

It may also interest you to discover that the thyroid was first named by Thomas Wharton in 1656 after an ancient Greek shield. Its shape is so often compared to a butterfly, but I suppose a shield is also fitting because if it works properly it actually shields our body from all kinds of illnesses and imbalances. The German word Schilddrüse also uses the shield analogy.

Another interesting anecdote is renowned 19th century thyroid surgeon Theodor Kocher’s treatment for hypothyroidism of “half a sheep’s thyroid lightly fried and taken with current jelly once a week.” Bon appétit! That said, it does sound remarkably similar to today’s natural desiccated thyroid meds, which are however of a porcine origin and are slightly more palatable. The idea behind medications such as Armour Thyroid obviously isn’t that new because back in 1475 the Chinese man Wang His suggested drying 50 pig glands and pulverizing them to treat goiter.

Some historical accounts of thyroid treatment may seem rather barbaric and erroneous by today’s standards. Interestingly, Roman physicians deemed thyroid enlargement to be a sign of puberty. One account of Galen (130 – 200 A.D.), the most important physician of the Greco-Roman period, makes us realize how much we have progressed when it comes to modern thyroid surgery. He described ignorant physicians operating on two boys and removing “tubercular” nodes with their fingernails. One boy was rendered mute and the other semi-mute. In the 1200s A.D. goiter removal involved applying hot irons through the skin and slowly withdrawing them at right angles. Patients were tied down to prevent them from struggling, but most died from hemorrhage or sepsis. The ancient civilization of Mesopotamia appears to have got it right: the Code of Hammurabi required patients to pay for surgery by knife, but a failed surgery was even more costly for the surgeon because the compensation was decided on by the patient.

We look back on the treatments of ages past and are incredulous at the pain and inconvenience suffered by the patient, but no doubt future physicians will be amazed that more research wasn’t done to provide today’s thyroid patients with better treatment – despite what some doctors claim, it often takes more than “just a pill”. I sometimes wonder if a thyroid transplant will ever be available for those who have been forced to say farewell to their glands. One study in 2006 involved transplanting a rabbit thyroid into a woman who was reported to be in a good condition with normal thyroid blood levels after the surgery. Two years later, in 2008, Italian researchers successfully transplanted a pig’s thyroid to its abdomen. Many thyroids have to be removed due to tumors in the throat, but the transplanted gland settled into the host muscle and began synthesizing thyroid gland. Apparently, human to human transplants have been attempted, but the donor organs were rejected. It remains to be seen whether such studies will eventually lead to a more efficacious treatment for those whose thyroids have left them in the lurch.

Talking of transplants, one interesting account I came across was that of 16th century “father of modern plastic surgery”, Italian surgeon Gasparo Tagliacozzi, who popularized a previously reported technique of attaching skin flaps from the arm to the nose for partial restoration of noses lost in combat or due to syphilis. The lucky patient would have to live life with their arm flap attached to their nose until it healed and the transplant took. However, the religious zeal of the Counterreformation put a stop to Tagliacozzi’s work when illness was increasingly viewed as a divine punishment for people’s sins.

Today, we have organ donor cards to help people who might need our vital parts after our death. Back in the 19th century, British medical schools were in dire need of people’s parts for dissection in the study and teaching of anatomy. Medical science was flourishing, but the dramatic reduction in executions meant that there were fewer cadavers available. Desperate times called for desperate measures and body-snatchers abounded. Two such characters were found in 19th century Edinburgh. Serial killers Burke and Hare murdered 17 victims and sold them to private anatomy lecturer Doctor Robert Knox between 1827 and 1828. The two were found out and Hare was offered immunity to testify against his partner in crime Burke. The villain’s punishment was horribly fitting. In 1829, he was hanged and then publicly dissected. His skeleton, death mask and items made from his tanned skin are displayed at the museum of the Edinburgh Medical College.

When I read about villains such as Burke and Hare, I can’t help thinking that they must have been seriously sick in the head. Well, it appears they weren’t the only ones. Prehistoric man is known for carrying out the practice of trepanning, which involves drilling a hole in the skull. It is thought that this was used to cure conditions such as headaches and epilepsy, which incidentally in Biblical times was equated with demonic possession. Prehistoric man performed trepanning for the same reason, considering such conditions to be caused by an evil spirit trapped inside a person. There is evidence that some patients survived. Trepanning was carried out throughout history. In the Americas, the pincers of certain ants were used in prehistoric times to seal wounds and prevent infection. The ant was held above the wound until it bit, its head was then removed and the pincers remained to seal the wound.

Whilst we’re talking heads (musical accolade here!), one therapy that has quite literally shocked some people is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), also known as electroshock therapy. It’s a controversial, last-resort psychiatric treatment that induces seizures in anesthetized patients to treat conditions such as severe major depression, mania (often in bipolar disorder) and catatonia.

Introduced in the 1930s, it is still used today in extreme cases, although adversaries claim that it can lead to cognitive deficits and long-term memory loss. There have even been cases where it has been performed without anesthesia (unmodified ECT), notably in countries such as Japan, India and Nigeria. WHO has called for a worldwide ban on unmodified ECT, which in the past has led to fracture or dislocation of the long bones.

Horrifically, to my mind at least, ECT has even been performed without the patient’s consent. Indeed, until 2009 the 1983 Mental Health Act allowed ECT to be performed on detained patients in England and Wales irrespective of their capacity to consent, provided the treatment was likely to alleviate or prevent the worsening of their condition and was approved by a psychiatrist from the Mental Health Act Commission’s panel.

One interesting fact is that American author Ernest Hemmingway committed suicide shortly after ECT was performed on him in 1961: “Well, what is the sense of ruining my head and erasing my memory, which is my capital, and putting me out of business? It was a brilliant cure but we lost the patient …” Of course, there are also those who report positive experiences with ECT, but it still remains controversial and it seems vital that it be performed with the utmost responsibility and consideration of the patient’s welfare.

The time I had a plantar wart (verruca) and was researching my treatment options online, I really thought they were taking the piss when one site advised me to apply urine to it. Apparently, urine has been used throughout history (and is still used today) to treat ailments from gangrene, cancer, diabetes, consumption, heart disease, Bright’s Disease, bladder problems, malaria, fevers, wounds, burns, bronchial asthma and many other ailments. But the administration is not just in the application, it’s also in the drinking! Bottoms up! In ancient Rome, towns even set up urinal troths that residents contributed to and also benefited from. Urine therapy has also been used by centuries of European gypsies, Alaskan Eskimos and, reportedly, the Yogis and Lamas of Tibet, who drink it for longevity.

Apparently, bodily excretions have been considered vital for diagnoses in the past. Hippocrates, the founder of medicine, would violently shake his patients up and down to cure their coughs and he also tasted samples of blood, earwax, phlegm and urine. The tasting of urine isn’t as crazy as one might think as the urine of diabetics has a sweet taste due to the body’s excess glucose. Up until the early 19th century when chemical tests were introduced for diagnostic purposes, some physicians used this technique to test for diabetes mellitus (which roughly translates to excessive sweet urine).

A 1759 edition of Lamery’s Dictionnaire Universelle des Drogues prescribes “the burning of hair to counteract vapors; the saliva of a fasting young man to cure bites of reptiles and mad dogs; ear wax, well chewed, for the cure of whitlows; powdered toe and finger nail pairings, taken with wine, as a good emetic and woman’s milk for inflamed eyes.” A truly shitty remedy is that of dried human dung, which was considered a cure for epilepsy. Dried white dog turds were also a popular remedy stocked by 16th century druggists and pigeon droppings and stallion manure were considered another miracle cure.

Tudor (a period of English history from 1485 to 1603) cures are no less barmy and superstitious. One cure for a headache was to rub your head with the rope used to hang a criminal and rheumatism was easy-peasy to cure and you could also have some fancy dress fun by wearing a donkey skin. Pain from gout, a condition that allegedly afflicted womanizer and head-chopper King Henry VIII, could be remedied in a jiffy with an ointment concocted by boiling a red-haired dog (why are the redheads always given such a hard time?) in oil, adding worms and pig bone marrow. Patients with liver pain were advised to drink a pint of ale every morning for a week, but don’t forget to drown nine head-lice in it. It’ll really enhance the taste! Crushed beetle shampoo was prescribed for baldness and was followed up with an application of grease from the fat of a dead fox. Asthma sufferers tackled the frog in their throat quite literally by swallowing a young frog or live spider covered in butter so that it would just slide down the throat.

Powdered human skull, bone-marrow mixed with sweat, a stone that killed a she-bear and fresh cream mixed with the blood of a black cat’s tail were other cures of the day. The cure to top it all, however, has to be the oil of newborn puppies that are cut up and mixed with earthworms. Its calming effect was used to treat paralysis and nervous conditions. Quack! Quack! Quack! Egyptians also had some crazy remedies in store, including a cure for bad breath by putting a freshly killed hot mouse in your mouth. Popular contraceptive methods were crocodile dung, honey and oil.

Leech therapy or hirudotherapy dates back 2,500 years and actually made a comeback in the 1980s. It was used to let blood in sufferers of the Great Plague of London from 1665 to 1666. Sufferers slit their wrists to release what they thought to be infected blood, which sometimes triggered infections or caused them to bleed to death. Sitting in a sewer with a live chicken’s shaved bum held against your armpit (one symptom was buboes or inflammatory swelling of the lymph nodes, which often affected the armpits) was another remedy.

If all else failed, whipping yourself and running through the town naked was also worth a try or how about scrubbing your scalp with the urine from the rats who actually carried the plague? Tragically, the persecution of cats because of their association with witches further contributed to the spread of such plagues as there was a shortage of cats to kill the rats.

Sadly, there are also accounts of people walling in plague victims to prevent the infection from spreading. The Derbyshire town of Eyam, not far from where I grew up, is famous in England for cutting itself off from the rest of civilization in an effort to isolate the infection. Interestingly, some villagers survived and research suggests that they actually had genetic protection in the form of a gene mutation dubbed Delta 32, which is also thought to provide protection against HIV/AIDS.

I love learning about the history of medicine. In the past and in the present, you don’t have to go far to find what could potentially be dubbed as a crazy treatment, but it never ceases to amaze me that some physicians many millennia ago actually got it right. I also hope that one day more research will be devoted to a satisfactory treatment and possibly a cure of thyroid disease.

Hope this was an interesting read!




  1. YouTube clips of kids’ show Horrible Histories
  2. The History of the Thyroid Gland
  3. A Short History of the Thyroid Gland
  4. Homeopathic Perspective on Thyroid Disorders
  5. The History of Health Insurance
  6. Thyroid Transplant: From A Rabbit?
  7. Italian Thyroid Breakthrough: Self-transplants!
  8. A History of Plastic Surgery
  9. Burke and Hare Murders
  10. Prehistoric Medicine
  11. Electroconvulsive Therapy
  12. The Urine Cure and Other Curious Medical Treatments
  13. Foul Facts Gallery: Terrible Tudors, Vile Victorians
  14. Horrible Histories Press Pack: Horrible Historical Facts
  15. Health Hazards and Cures in Ancient Egypt
  16. Wikipedia “Leech” entry
  17. Cats and the Black Plague
  18. What were cures for the Black Plague or Black Death?
  19. Consequences of the Black Death
  20. Wikipedia “Eyam” entry

By Sarah Downing

My name is Sarah. I was born and grew up in England and currently live in Düsseldorf, Germany, with my fiancé Corey and my cuddly cat Biscuit. I work as a translator and writer for my own company Aardwolf Text Services (www.aardwolf.de) and I love vintage clothes and music, as well as singing karaoke.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *