Six Reasons Medieval Doctors Were Just the Worst

Ah, the good ol’ days. When men were men, women were women, and medicine was a pack of smokes and a tincture of hemlock. Yep, as it turns out the good old days were not the good old days when it came to the practice of medicine. In fact, up until the 19th-Century, many people looked at doctors with about as much respect as the proprietor of pawn shop/porn store/underground cock-fighting club. Looking at some of these medieval and ancient medical techniques, it’s not hard to see why.

  1. Urine: Nature’s Tooth Whitener

Despite the fact that it turns my toilet a sickly yellow, the Romans were known to use urine to whiten their teeth.  The interesting thing about this one is that it actually works. The ammonia in pee acts as a bleaching agent. It’s more just that it’s, you know, disgusting.

  1. Dwale: If the Surgery Doesn’t Kill You, the Anesthetic Should

One of the reasons surgery used to be so horrible was the fact that up until the middle of the 19th Century, there was little in the way of anesthetics other than some booze and, if you were lucky, some opium. That’s not to say they didn’t try, though. In late medieval England there was something called “dwale.”  This stuff basic threw the kitchen sink of medieval medical knowledge at the problem. A typical concoction would include bile (from a boar or sow depending on whether the patient was male or female, naturally), bryony, lettuce, opium, henbane, vinegar, and hemlock. Yes, you read that correctly. Hemlock. The official poison of Ancient Greece and the stuff they used to kill good ol’ Socrates. Turns out this could potentially work. Too much hemlock is obviously lethal, but give someone just the right amount and they might pass out into a sort of numb coma from which it was possible to recover, during which time you could cut them open and fiddle with their parts. This process was aided by the henbane, which was also a dangerous drug that, if lucky with the dosing, could knock a person out. Sounds like a recipe for success.

  1. I’m Doing My Residency in Astrology

A large part of the reason medieval medicine was so ineffective was because it relied heavily on one of the most dubious “sciences” in human history: Astrology. And we’re not just talking, oh he’s a Capricorn so we might want to give him a little more henbane. We’re talking they actually carried star charts around with them to consult before making a diagnosis. So important was Astrology to medieval physicians, that by the 1500s they were legally obligated to calculate the position of the moon before carrying out complicated medical procedures. That’s right, you could sue your doctor for medical malpractice if he failed to calculate the position of the moon. Of course, unless you’re the prince of tides, the moon’s position has no effect on your health, but I’m sure there’s still some in the anti-vaccer crowd that still worry about it.

  1. Stimulate your T-Zone with Medicinal Tobacco

Turns out medical marijuana was not the first smokable medicinal herb. That honor belongs to good, old-fashioned tobacco. When Europeans first observed its use in the 15th Century during voyages to the New World, they were of the mindset that anything herbal had potential therapeutic properties (how far we’ve come, huh?). Anyways, the medical community regarded it as a cure all, a pack o’ reds being prescribed for practically anything. In fact, old timey doctors used to call it “the holy herb” and “God’s remedy.” We all know Jesus totally toked, but did he also totally smoke? The jury is still out.

  1. Cinnabar, the Other Vitamin C

Europe doesn’t have a monopoly on moronic ancient medical practices. As in many things, Ancient China was way ahead of Europe in the field of dubious medicine. In the 4th Century, a medical pioneer/alchemist named Ko Hung had come to the conclusion that eating gold could help someone “attain perfection” because you are what you eat and, you know, gold is the best. Unfortunately, his powerful deductive abilities also led him to the conclusion that many people would be too poor eat a gold-based diet and therefore sought out an alternative. His alternative was the much cheaper and much more poisonous mercury ore known as cinnabar. Among other things, he also thought it could be smeared on feet to enable someone to walk on water, placed over the door to scare away intruders, and combined with raspberry juice to help old men sire some fresh customers once their fathers died of mercury poisoning. Needless to say, he probably didn’t run too many clinical trials on his groundbreaking treatments.

  1. Bloodletting: Draining the Humour From Any Situation

Medieval “medicine” was dominated by the principle of the “humours,” bodily fluids that had to remain in balance for a person to remain a healthy, functioning adult. If someone has too much of a humor, then, what should the treatment be? You guessed it, draining the humor from the body. Probably since blood was the easiest fluid to drain, bloodletting became a popular treatment for a variety of ailments. Any successes were purely coincidental.


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