Old bizarre methods of treatment

The manual from 1899 describes, among other things, how to treat insomnia with coffee, headache with nitroglycerine, constipation with opium and ear infection with leeches.

Examples of bizarre and sometimes potentially lethal treatment methods are described in the first edition of the medical handbook from 1899, “The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy” issued by the US Merck & Co drug manufacturer. Among other things, it describes how to treat insomnia with coffee, headache with nitroglycerine, constipation with opium and ear infection with leeches.

Top 10 items from the first edition of the manual, some of which have been recommended for decades:

1. Arsenic for anemia

Although arsenic was known as poison from antic times, it was one of the best anemic drugs, as recommended in the manual. It was used in small doses, and in medicine for the treatment of anthrax, syphilis …
In the 19th century, arsenic was inhaled, swallowed, injected, given through clyster. Many people have had symptoms of arsenic poisoning – like rashes, stomach problems, and headaches. Diseases that were treated by arsenic in the Victorian era were called “Fowler’s Diseases” because of the popular drug – Fowler’s solution – which contained arsenic.

2. Laxatives for chickenpox
In the Victorian era, chickenpox, measles and scarlet fever were treated with a laxative, most often a dose of castor oil that caused diarrhea. The idea was to cleanse the body of an infectious disease, but such treatments only poisoned the patient’s life by forcing the patient to run to the toilet.

3. Strychnine for Constipation
Even a minimal dose of strychnine can cause convulsions. However, Merck’s manual, which followed the medical practice at that time, recommended the treatment of small quantities of this harsh poison for the treatment of acute constipation.
It has been considered that strychnine, obtained from plants, improves stomach function. Also, the recommendation was to take both opium and turpentine. Still, some patients were eating apples and figs or drinking coffee instead, solving the problem that way. Otherwise, strychnine is often the component of rat poison.

4. Chloroform for hiccups
In 1899, it was entirely reasonable for a doctor to recommend the inhalation of a chemical compound of chloroform in cases of persistent hiccups. The popular anesthetic in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century was eventually forbidden to give to patients due to the possible damage to the nervous system, the liver, and the kidneys. Other medicines which help prevent hiccups by the Merck Manual, were nitroglycerin and sugar and vinegar.

5. Inhalation of smoke to treat asthma
It is stated in the manual that smoking is sometimes useful for asthma, and in chronic cases “cannabis indica can help.” In the Victorian era, inhalation of tobacco smoke, cannabis, stramonium (hallucinogenic plants) and lobelia (flowering plants known for sedative effects) were popular treatments for asthmatics.
There were also special anti-asthma cigarettes. Today, it is understood that inhaling any smoke has been proven to damage and reduce the function of the lungs and worsens the symptoms of asthma.

6. Releasing blood to treat nausea
Releasing blood from the patient, by leeches or in some other way has been used for thousands of years to treat various diseases, including excessive bleeding. Ancient Greek doctors considered that it is sometimes necessary to balance blood and other body fluids. This was practiced for a long time, and until the 19th century, it was standard therapy for many diseases, including nausea or morning nausea during pregnancy.

Blood discharge was believed to regulate the pulse, relieve fever and relieve pain. Releasing blood can help in several conditions, such as a genetic disorder that leads to abnormal iron accumulation in the liver. However, doctors have finally realized that this method can also weaken patients and that numerous cuts on the skin can lead to infection.
Apart from the release of blood, the recommendation also included taking cocaine, a miracle drug that helps with all kinds of nausea. A better result, with fewer adverse effects, could be achieved with other recommended natural medicine – cinnamon.


7. Cold water shower for insomnia

Alcohol, cannabis and a cold shower were, according to the Merck’s Manual, effective remedies for insomnia. Cold water showers have been called an excellent method that improves circulation and helps, apart from insomnia, in fighting infections and in treating headaches. Other drugs that “treat” insomnia were coffee, alcohol, and placing a hot compress on the feet while putting a cold one on the head at the same time.

8. Poisonous Plants for Colic

A recommendation to relieve colic, severe seizures of abdominal pain often with tiny babies, were ammonia, turpentine, and Belladonna, healing but at the same time a very poisonous plant. Some of its parts may be deadly.

9. Leeches for an ear infection

The use of leech in treating ear infections was a popular treatment method. In the manual, it is explained that the leech alleviates the pain while the peptides and proteins from her saliva prevent blood clotting, “which helps to pass the infection.”

The use of leech again came under the magnifying glass, so the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) decided that leeches meet the definition of vital medical supplies since their tiny jaws (and anticoagulants) maintain blood flow that helps wound healing. They can also be used to break blood clots, treat extended veins, and improve other circulation disorders.


10. Cocaine for Alcoholism

In 1880 Sigmund Freud helped popularize the idea of cocaine use in the treatment of alcoholism. He called him a magical remedy. At that time, cocaine was a recommendation for the treatment of morphine addiction, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and migraine.

On the counter, cocaine was sold in the form of tonics, powders, wines, and non-alcoholic beverages. Patients have probably felt like they are full of energy due to regular intake of this “medication.”

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