Down through the centuries, medicine has truly been a sordid venture where the pursuit of making people healthy has not always been a goal.

In fact, medicine has a shameful past. Much of that can be attributed to sheer ignorance in plodding through the muck for something that worked.  Part of it was the failure of the medical arts to develop without countless outrageous mistakes. But a  large part of it is because those who “practiced” medicine were more intent on greed and self-interests. Nothing was lost if they lost the patient.  Human life seemed to have sharply less value than we regard it today.  And the bodies of the dead were highly sought for curious experiments and highly popular public dissection exercises.

I just finish a newly published book, “Strange Medicine – A Shocking History of Real Medical Practices through the Ages,” written by Nathan Belofsky (Perigre/Penguin Books, 213 pages, $14).   The work simply extracts from numerous earlier medical references and other writings the litany of bizarre practices that “doctors” and health practitioners carried out supposedly in a quest to end suffering or treat some medical issues.

But time after time, they displayed virtually no empathy, no sense of caring for the patient.  Life and death were both mysterious.  An anything-goes science was followed.  Medical actions on patients lacked regulations, and the general public seemed all too willing to go along with the latest crazy concoction of a medicinal remedy where tests were questionable at best.  Gullibility reigned.

Outrageous and audacious experimenting could be carried out without so much as any oversight or medical ethic standards. Clumsy, cruel steps were taken on some chance it would help a patient.  In fact, treatments were routinely deleterious and worsened the situation. Sanitation was virtually unheard of as late as the 1890s, and germs introduced during treatment turned relatively benign health situations into a spiral toward death.   One wonders why the populace, upon seeing such lousy fates of patients, allowed themselves to be subjected to grotesque, perverse treatments.

Some examples:

— In 1839, teething took the lives of 5,016 of London’s babies, according to the city’s registrar general.  Dr. Jacob Plank, a founder of modern dermatology, believed that teething caused lameness…In 1844, the Lancet told doctors to scarify with a sharp knife every single baby tooth once, if not twice a day…To stop all the crying, doctors recommended patent medicines like Woodward’s Gripe Water, made of alcohol…”

— In 1855, Scientific Medicine ran an article recognizing Dr. Alpheus Myer’s contribution to internal medicine.  Myers had invented a “trap for removing tapeworms from the stomach and intestines.  The patient would fast for a week to make sure the tapeworm was hungry. The trap would then be  baited with cheese and lowered down the patient’s throat with a string. The tapeworm, which the article claimed could be hundreds of feet long, would take the bait.  The trap would spring and the worm would be reeled in.

— Graves were continually robbed for corpses to experiment with. “Cemeteries fought back, employing guards, watchtowers and even land mines.  With bodies at a premium, British doctors and hospitals encouraged the thefts, from a distance.

— Blood-letting was all the rage, but patients all too often were bled too much and died.  Leeches were popular for centuries for drawing out blood. “…local drugstores sold leeches by the barrel. …  A doctor would tie a leech to some silk thread and lower it down his patient’s throat.  When the leech became heavy with blood, he’d reel it in like a fish. … Doctors commonly applied leeches to the anus.  This had to be done with caution, to prevent patients from going into contraction or spasm.”

—  There were fixations with enemas, with some patients become so addicted to it, that they had them multiple times a day.   Doctors found spinning bodies for extended time got results.  Cauterizing patients with hot irons were said to have salutary effects.  All sorts of varmints — mice, rats, snakes and monkeys — were used for treatments, typically killed with some of their innards employed as medicine.

Surgeons apparently reeked of blood and body odors and carried the stench with them.  But doctors apparently had an aversion to a lot of touching of patients, especially the unwashed poor.  In Victorian times especially, they avoided looking a the naked flesh of women patients.

To my alarm,  Belofsky does not really discuss the perverse practice of circumcision — certainly one of the most disgusting, cruel, baseless practices to be conjured under the umbrella of health.  But after reading “Strange Medicine,” it comes as no surprise to me that human experimenters would cut off a healthy section of the penises of helpless infants for some pretext.

The book does include a host of ways to stop masturbation, including mechanical devices with spikes that go to work with any erection.  The there is that dastardly Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s famous solution: “(Circumcision) should be performed…without using an anesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon he mind….In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris  an excellent means of allaying abnormal excitement.”

The lesson here is that modern medicine is still finding its way through the darkness, offering a bazillion solutions to what ails us, failing woefully in some areas and certainly prescribing things that will prove to have caused severe damage, side-effects, injury and death.  The profit motive in pharmaceuticals, medical practice, hospitals and quacks will drive them forward to who knows what.

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