What Doesn’t Kill You? 5 Strange Historic Cures

Family History
15 January 2015

5 Strange Historic Cures
Just the thing to soothe that cough. [Image: Mpv_51, Wikimedia Commons]
Did you know that a century ago, you could order hard drugs through the mail? These were considered legitimate medicines taken under doctor’s orders.

In the “prescription department” of a 1902 Sears Roebuck catalog, found on Ancestry, it straightforwardly says that “orders for opium, morphine, cocaine and drugs of this class should be accompanied with a physician’s prescription.” But that’s just a start. Take a look at some other questionable cures our ancestors relied on.

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1. Heroin

Bayer, the German pharmaceutical company, developed and marketed heroin for commercial use in 1898. It was said to have all kinds of medicinal benefits, especially cough suppression. In an age with frequent bouts of tuberculosis and pneumonia, heroin’s respiratory depression and sedative effects made it a popular cure. There were syrups, lozenges, and tablets. Bayer exported heroin to 23 countries. It took only a few years before enthusiasts discovered that the drug was also incredibly addictive, and by 1913 it was off the shelves.

2. Hemiglossectomy

God help our stuttering ancestors. If they lived in the 1840s, they could have had part of their tongues cut off, a practice known as hemiglossectomy. A Prussian surgeon named J. F. Dieffenbach came up with the treatment, which he practiced without anesthesia. The “radical cure,” which he described in a memoir, was an incision cut through the root of the tongue that he said stopped the spasm of the vocal chords. Perhaps his patients stopped stuttering because they passed out. Later treatments for stuttering have involved hypnosis and electric shock.

Problem child? Give him a wee drop of morphine [Image: Boston Public Library]

3. Soothing Syrup

In the 19th century, busy mothers who had little time to calm crying babies gave them a spoonful of soothing syrup, and they shut right up. What made the medicine so effective? Oh, a little codeine, cannabis, opium, heroin, and the like, according to the New York Times in 1910. Ads for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, found in many historical newspapers on Ancestry, said: “Depend upon it, mothers, it will give rest to yourselves and relief and health to your infants.” It also regularly appeared among the medicines listed in the Sears Roebuck catalog — and contained 65 mg of morphine per ounce.

4. Arsenic

Though a known carcinogen and poison, arsenic has a long history of medicinal use. From the 18th to the early 20th century, arsenic-based solutions were used to treat malaria, arthritis, tuberculosis, and diabetes. A German pharmacologist found that if arsenic was attached to certain chemicals, it could actually be therapeutic. The method was used to treat syphilis until the advent of penicillin and could be effective if the dosage was limited.

5. Maggot Therapy

Maggots are the larvae of a fly, often found on decaying meat. Gross as they sound, they have been used to treat wounds for centuries. Maggots feed on dead tissue, leaving healthy tissue intact. They were brought to the battlefields of the Napoleonic wars, the Civil War, and World War I to clean soldiers’ wounds. The disgusting treatment went out of favor with the invention of penicillin but has lately regained some respect. Since some bacteria is resistant to antibiotics, maggots are occasionally the best option. Consider it a medical link to your military forebears.

—Rebecca Dalzell

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