Bad Medicine

Medical history is full of surprising and unsettling tidbits of information, because of all of the inventive ways that people have gotten healthcare wrong over the centuries. These stories can be tragic when they are clearly treatments that are born out of desperation and don't work, and some of them are comical, as well, when they're so far from our modern understanding of medical science that they seem ridiculous. In the book I'm working on, Exploring American Healthcare through 50 Historic Treasures, I try to only tell the shocking stories in contexts that help them shed light on a particular era or way of thinking, but there are too many surprising bits of trivia to include, so I've rounded up a handful of them here.

  • Cancer is named from the Greek and Latin words for crab, reportedly because the dark fluids that ooze from necrotic (dead) tissue in a tumor can look like several legs emerging from a central body. Ancient Greek cancer treatments included burning an odd number of crabs and creating a poultice with them.
  • An artificial morphine substitute was synthesized in 1874, but scientists felt it was too strong to use on humans. It was rediscovered in the 1890's and the Bayer pharmaceutical company began selling it with a name suggesting it would make you feel like a hero -- heroin. Yes, that heroin.
  • Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte, an Omaha woman who is featured in the book, died of bone cancer in 1915. While she was ailing, her family wrote to Marie Curie for help. Curie sent a pellet of radium to be placed in her ear (near the site of the cancer). It actually got lodged in her ear canal and did not change her condition.
  • During the 1918 flu pandemic, desperate parents in England took their sick children to the local gasworks to inhale the fumes as an (ineffective) folk remedy. 
  • Dr. Albert Abrams, who made a fringe medical device featured in the book, was often called a quack, for good reason, as he made numerous false claims. Some of them would sound strange to the modern ear. In one demonstration he appeared to scry for an absent patient’s location by running an electrode over a map after using the patient’s photograph to diagnose him with syphilitic insanity. Other Abrams false claims are not so foreign nearly a century later, such as the claim that ERA practitioner could diagnose everything wrong with a patient and a proper course of treatment if the patient mailed them a small blood sample. Scientific American said his work bordered on occultism, but in the late 19th and early 20th century, occultism was wildly popular and often included scientific-sounding ideas. Patients in Abrams’ time and today can also be swayed by celebrity endorsements. Abrams’ ardent supporters included Upton Sinclair (author of the novel The Jungle, which exposed conditions in meat-packing plants and contributed to the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act) and Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes and also a believer in the occult.
Bathsheba's Breast: Women, Cancer, and History, James Olson, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005
The PBS documentary Medicine Woman, available online. Produced by Christine Lesiak and Princella RedCorn.
Influenza: The Hundred Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History, Jeremy Brown, Atria Books, 2018.
The Body Electric: How Strange Machines Built the Modern American. Carolyn Thomas De la Peña, NYU Press, 2005.