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3 Deadly Medical Practices of the 19th and 20th Centuries

Hippocrates wrote his ‘oath’ for doctors sometime around 500 B.C. The oath, still taken in some capacity by 98% of American medical school graduates, declares an intent for honest and ethical medical practice. To be sure, most medical professionals, then and now, have good intentions. But good intentions aren’t always enough. Obviously, medicine has come a long way since the Greek innovators of millenniums past, but it’s even come a long way in the last century. Here are 3 deadly medical practices of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

1. Cocaine

Medical Solutions of 19th centurySherlock Holmes would have loved the plethora of powder and rolled up dollar bills at Studio 54. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famously brilliant storybook detective often injected cocaine to cure his boredom between cases. The difference? In the days of disco, the drug was definitely outlawed, but in the late 19th century it was touted as a medical marvel.

South American natives had been chewing leaves of the coca plant for centuries, but the concentrated powdered version we know as cocaine didn’t hit the streets until about 1880. But once it arrived on the scene, it took the medical world by storm. Sigmund Freud was obsessed with the drug. In 1884, he wrote a 70 page love note to the Bolivian marching powder called “Uber Coca”, claiming prominently, of all things, that it was a perfect cure for morphine addiction. Doctors used cocaine to treat stomach aches, anxiety, asthma and even tuberculosis. It was sold in drinks, ointments, even margarine. Then there was the uber popular, Vin Mariani, a Bordeaux wine that contained 6 milligrams of cocaine in every ounce.

Of course, now we know how dangerous the drug really is. It’s infamously taken the lives of thousands, maybe millions, including John Belushi, Chris Farley and Whitney Houston.

2. Lobotomy

Lobotomy from 19th centuryFrom inception in 1935, through the heyday in the 40s and into rapid decline in the mid-50s, this brain shredding procedure claimed around 70,000 victims in a short period of time. Lobotomy is a word of Greek origin, a compound noun combining ‘lobe’ and ‘cut/slice’. And that’s a pretty literal definition. Essentially, doctors took long metal picks, jammed them into the patient’s eye to get at the brain, and pounded it in with a mallet to scrape away parts of the frontal lobe of the brain.

Short lived as it was, the surgery was thought to be a solution to a wide range of mental illnesses, from super serious conditions like schizophrenia to mild depression.

We know now how brutal this procedure is, but unfortunately it was too little too late. Even when the lobotomy lost favor in the 1950s, it was less about the danger and more about the introduction of easier-to-use antidepressant and antipsychotic medications.

3. Soothing Syrup

Southing Syrup for Medical PurposeIn the 19th century and early 20th century, parents just couldn’t be bothered with fussy children. The solution? Drug ‘em up. Enter ‘soothing syrups’, a preposterous blend of narcotics designed just for the little ones. Take the popular Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup; each ounce contained 65 mg of pure morphine.

Sure, the soothing syrups worked. They also killed children. The worst behaved toddlers were consequently often the most drugged...and most often killed. Medical professionals no doubt blamed the children’s behavior and death on mental illness or the likes. But the truth is, these kids were just acting like kids, and overdosed because of it.

In 1910, the ridiculousness came to an end. The New York Times published a whistleblowing article listing the ingredients of soothing syrups: morphin sulphate, chloroform, morphine hydrochloride, codeine, heroin, powdered opium and/or cannabis indica. Nap time!

Medical advances keep on coming. Who knows? In another hundred years, we’ll be examining the crazy medical practices of...now!


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