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Medical Treatments You’re Grateful They Don’t Use Anymore

I forget the number of times my parents tried to get me to the doctor only for them to be met with flat refusal. “I’m fine!” might be a common exclamation from anyone who feels like visiting the GP amounts to admitting defeat, but try and imagine falling ill only a couple of hundred years ago. Sick citizens must have had a whole array of tricks to get out of seeing their local physician, especially when these three treatments were potential panaceas.


More than fuel for terrible Dad jokes, this old and frankly terrifying procedure was used as a radical therapeutic cure for disturbed patients suffering anything from schizophrenia, manic depression, bipolar disorder (simply mania at the time) and even anxiety.

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The idea was to detach the brain’s (malfunctioning) emotional centres from the seat of intellect (hopefully not malfunctioning) by literally severing connections to and from the prefrontal cortex.

Tinkering with the brain to fix mental imbalance first emerged in the late 1880s when Gottlieb Burkhardt, a Swiss physician, decided to remove parts of the brain cortex. As a supervisor in an asylum for the insane, Burkhardt had access to plenty of patients suffering from auditory hallucinations and symptoms now attributed to schizophrenia. Six lucky individuals were chosen for him to operate on, and his findings were eventually presented to peers at the Berlin Medical Congress. They were received with less than enthusiasm.

Developing on from this, Mr António Egas Moniz had other ideas and decided to inject pure ethyl alcohol into two drilled holes in a patient’s head thus performing the world’s first ‘prefrontal leucotomy’. Instead of opposing the procedures, the US media got hold of the idea and hailed it as a highly successful method for reducing tension and agitation. Moniz was awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his efforts and discoveries.

American neurologist Walter J. Freeman II in 1936 however, gets the badge for first ever lobotomy in the United States. Freeman continued to refine the techniques from Moniz and other advocates, eventually developing the infamously fear-inducing ‘ice-pick’ lobotomy, where two ice pick shaped instruments would be inserted above both eyeballs using a hammer, and then wiggled back and forth until fibres and nerves were severed.

So next time you walk into the kitchen or bedroom without a clue as to why, make sure to appreciate what it means to truly have an absent mind.



Probably the oldest known medical treatment, Bloodletting involved draining a person’s blood so the body could realign or readjust itself. This was necessary to properly balance the four fluids of the body: Blood, Phlegm, Yellow Bile and Black Bile, which practitioners referred to as the ‘four humours’. An imbalance of these humours was thought to be the cause of all illness, and it was reasoned then that if a patient was feeling under the weather, they were clearly suffering from an overzealous supply of blood; blood that desperately needed to be removed. It was a fairly straightforward procedure, where small incisions into veins or arteries were made on the neck or forearm to drain blood.

This method of re-balancing the body to cure health problems spanned civilisations from Egypt to Greece, Rome to India and right up to when George Washington requested treatment in 1799, complaining of a sore throat. Our very first POTUS died four days later, with excessive blood loss thought to be a contributing factor.

Bloodletting lasted for thousands of years until sometime in the late 1800s when newer (working) treatment had been developed and the practice was gradually discredited by physicians. Now let’s put that timeframe into some perspective. Compare the thousands of years Bloodletting was used against some modern methods and you can see just how infantile our medicine today is. Penicillin has been used in medicine for 85 Years (1928), Aspirin for 116 Years (1897), Morphine for 186 Years (1827) while Bloodletting reigned for an astounding 2000 + years. Makes you wonder why it took so long for humanity to see the error; either that, or whether they were actually on to something.



The final contender for scariest widely used method to deal with seizures and migraines is Trephination, or, Trepanation. Common until the 1800s, evidence of trepanning has been uncovered all over the world. Originally though, it involved a bunch of Neolithic dwellers (in what is now France) carving holes out of each other’s heads.

Our antediluvian ancestors believed that boring a hole into the skull would help expel the unwanted spirits thought to be causing seizures and migraines. The procedure required the use of a trephine, an instrument used to cut or drill out round pieces of skull bone. Research today suggests that trephination may have actually been successful in treating head trauma by relieving pressure from excess blood under the skull. (Along with exorcising those pesky, illness-inducing evil spirits of course.)


A recent resurgence has seen several advocacy groups working today to offer trephination as a relevant and beneficial procedure. Indeed, Dutch research librarian Bart Hughes continues to promote theories that trephination can regain ‘lost freedom’, correlating a stress-free state of mind to the pliable structure of a newborn’s soft head. As ridiculous as trephination sounds, it appears to have applications even today. Particularly in eye surgery, a trephine, albeit a downsized one, is used in ocular procedures to transplant corneas. Perhaps we ought to keep an open mind about the future after all.


And there you have it, three reasons to be grateful for being born a few decades later. The question remaining now, is which accepted and celebrated medical treatments used today will be curiously pondered over on top-lists in the future, as generation-next chuckles at how primitive, backward and morbid the lot of us were in the 21st century.

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