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Flying With Broken Wings: Curious Cures, Rank Remedies and Questionable Quacks

Post Published: 13 June 2010
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Category: Column, Flying With Broken Wings, Thyroid Symptoms and Effects Column
This post currently has 33 responses. Leave a comment

In my article entitled Raising Awareness Under The Intense Heat of the Spotlight, I talked about time-traveling teen Michael J. Fox a.k.a. Marty McFly. This week, I thought it might be fun for us to do some time-traveling of our own. I know that many of us are very frustrated about the cocktail of meds we have to take along with the constant doctors’ visits and being prodded and poked with needles. It particularly pisses me off when a medicine I am taking causes side effects that require me to take another medicine. I recently had to discontinue one med as it was making me feel worse than I did before my diagnosis – anyone for medically induced joint pain and overwhelming fatigue? In fact, as I write I haven’t eaten all bloody day, probably because my lovely Metformin is once again causing my bowels to turn somersaults.

However, all this pales in comparison to what people had to endure in ages past. This article was inspired by a BBC kids’ program called Horrible Histories. They have a section called Historical Hospital and it humorously depicts how physicians from different eras might have treated patients for certain conditions.

I started off by researching the history of thyroid disease and was surprised and impressed to learn that the Chinese were treating goiters with iodine-containing burnt sponge and seaweed as far back as 1600 B.C. As we know today, many thyroid conditions are caused by iodine deficiencies and so some patients take kelp supplements to improve their condition.

It may also interest you to discover that the thyroid was first named by Thomas Wharton in 1656 after an ancient Greek shield. Its shape is so often compared to a butterfly, but I suppose a shield is also fitting because if it works properly it actually shields our body from all kinds of illnesses and imbalances. The German word Schilddrüse also uses the shield analogy.

Another interesting anecdote is renowned 19th century thyroid surgeon Theodor Kocher’s treatment for hypothyroidism of “half a sheep’s thyroid lightly fried and taken with current jelly once a week.” Bon appétit! That said, it does sound remarkably similar to today’s natural desiccated thyroid meds, which are however of a porcine origin and are slightly more palatable. The idea behind medications such as Armour Thyroid obviously isn’t that new because back in 1475 the Chinese man Wang His suggested drying 50 pig glands and pulverizing them to treat goiter.

Some historical accounts of thyroid treatment may seem rather barbaric and erroneous by today’s standards. Interestingly, Roman physicians deemed thyroid enlargement to be a sign of puberty. One account of Galen (130 – 200 A.D.), the most important physician of the Greco-Roman period, makes us realize how much we have progressed when it comes to modern thyroid surgery. He described ignorant physicians operating on two boys and removing “tubercular” nodes with their fingernails. One boy was rendered mute and the other semi-mute. In the 1200s A.D. goiter removal involved applying hot irons through the skin and slowly withdrawing them at right angles. Patients were tied down to prevent them from struggling, but most died from hemorrhage or sepsis. The ancient civilization of Mesopotamia appears to have got it right: the Code of Hammurabi required patients to pay for surgery by knife, but a failed surgery was even more costly for the surgeon because the compensation was decided on by the patient.

We look back on the treatments of ages past and are incredulous at the pain and inconvenience suffered by the patient, but no doubt future physicians will be amazed that more research wasn’t done to provide today’s thyroid patients with better treatment – despite what some doctors claim, it often takes more than “just a pill”. I sometimes wonder if a thyroid transplant will ever be available for those who have been forced to say farewell to their glands. One study in 2006 involved transplanting a rabbit thyroid into a woman who was reported to be in a good condition with normal thyroid blood levels after the surgery. Two years later, in 2008, Italian researchers successfully transplanted a pig’s thyroid to its abdomen. Many thyroids have to be removed due to tumors in the throat, but the transplanted gland settled into the host muscle and began synthesizing thyroid gland. Apparently, human to human transplants have been attempted, but the donor organs were rejected. It remains to be seen whether such studies will eventually lead to a more efficacious treatment for those whose thyroids have left them in the lurch.

Talking of transplants, one interesting account I came across was that of 16th century “father of modern plastic surgery”, Italian surgeon Gasparo Tagliacozzi, who popularized a previously reported technique of attaching skin flaps from the arm to the nose for partial restoration of noses lost in combat or due to syphilis. The lucky patient would have to live life with their arm flap attached to their nose until it healed and the transplant took. However, the religious zeal of the Counterreformation put a stop to Tagliacozzi’s work when illness was increasingly viewed as a divine punishment for people’s sins.

Today, we have organ donor cards to help people who might need our vital parts after our death. Back in the 19th century, British medical schools were in dire need of people’s parts for dissection in the study and teaching of anatomy. Medical science was flourishing, but the dramatic reduction in executions meant that there were fewer cadavers available. Desperate times called for desperate measures and body-snatchers abounded. Two such characters were found in 19th century Edinburgh. Serial killers Burke and Hare murdered 17 victims and sold them to private anatomy lecturer Doctor Robert Knox between 1827 and 1828. The two were found out and Hare was offered immunity to testify against his partner in crime Burke. The villain’s punishment was horribly fitting. In 1829, he was hanged and then publicly dissected. His skeleton, death mask and items made from his tanned skin are displayed at the museum of the Edinburgh Medical College.

When I read about villains such as Burke and Hare, I can’t help thinking that they must have been seriously sick in the head. Well, it appears they weren’t the only ones. Prehistoric man is known for carrying out the practice of trepanning, which involves drilling a hole in the skull. It is thought that this was used to cure conditions such as headaches and epilepsy, which incidentally in Biblical times was equated with demonic possession. Prehistoric man performed trepanning for the same reason, considering such conditions to be caused by an evil spirit trapped inside a person. There is evidence that some patients survived. Trepanning was carried out throughout history. In the Americas, the pincers of certain ants were used in prehistoric times to seal wounds and prevent infection. The ant was held above the wound until it bit, its head was then removed and the pincers remained to seal the wound.

Whilst we’re talking heads (musical accolade here!), one therapy that has quite literally shocked some people is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), also known as electroshock therapy. It’s a controversial, last-resort psychiatric treatment that induces seizures in anesthetized patients to treat conditions such as severe major depression, mania (often in bipolar disorder) and catatonia.

Introduced in the 1930s, it is still used today in extreme cases, although adversaries claim that it can lead to cognitive deficits and long-term memory loss. There have even been cases where it has been performed without anesthesia (unmodified ECT), notably in countries such as Japan, India and Nigeria. WHO has called for a worldwide ban on unmodified ECT, which in the past has led to fracture or dislocation of the long bones.

Horrifically, to my mind at least, ECT has even been performed without the patient’s consent. Indeed, until 2009 the 1983 Mental Health Act allowed ECT to be performed on detained patients in England and Wales irrespective of their capacity to consent, provided the treatment was likely to alleviate or prevent the worsening of their condition and was approved by a psychiatrist from the Mental Health Act Commission’s panel.

One interesting fact is that American author Ernest Hemmingway committed suicide shortly after ECT was performed on him in 1961: “Well, what is the sense of ruining my head and erasing my memory, which is my capital, and putting me out of business? It was a brilliant cure but we lost the patient …” Of course, there are also those who report positive experiences with ECT, but it still remains controversial and it seems vital that it be performed with the utmost responsibility and consideration of the patient’s welfare.

The time I had a plantar wart (verruca) and was researching my treatment options online, I really thought they were taking the piss when one site advised me to apply urine to it. Apparently, urine has been used throughout history (and is still used today) to treat ailments from gangrene, cancer, diabetes, consumption, heart disease, Bright’s Disease, bladder problems, malaria, fevers, wounds, burns, bronchial asthma and many other ailments. But the administration is not just in the application, it’s also in the drinking! Bottoms up! In ancient Rome, towns even set up urinal troths that residents contributed to and also benefited from. Urine therapy has also been used by centuries of European gypsies, Alaskan Eskimos and, reportedly, the Yogis and Lamas of Tibet, who drink it for longevity.

Apparently, bodily excretions have been considered vital for diagnoses in the past. Hippocrates, the founder of medicine, would violently shake his patients up and down to cure their coughs and he also tasted samples of blood, earwax, phlegm and urine. The tasting of urine isn’t as crazy as one might think as the urine of diabetics has a sweet taste due to the body’s excess glucose. Up until the early 19th century when chemical tests were introduced for diagnostic purposes, some physicians used this technique to test for diabetes mellitus (which roughly translates to excessive sweet urine).

A 1759 edition of Lamery’s Dictionnaire Universelle des Drogues prescribes “the burning of hair to counteract vapors; the saliva of a fasting young man to cure bites of reptiles and mad dogs; ear wax, well chewed, for the cure of whitlows; powdered toe  and finger nail pairings, taken with wine, as a good emetic and woman’s milk for inflamed eyes.” A truly shitty remedy is that of dried human dung, which was considered a cure for epilepsy. Dried white dog turds were also a popular remedy stocked by 16th century druggists and pigeon droppings and stallion manure were considered another miracle cure.

Tudor (a period of English history from 1485 to 1603) cures are no less barmy and superstitious. One cure for a headache was to rub your head with the rope used to hang a criminal and rheumatism was easy-peasy to cure and you could also have some fancy dress fun by wearing a donkey skin. Pain from gout, a condition that allegedly afflicted womanizer and head-chopper King Henry VIII, could be remedied in a jiffy with an ointment concocted by boiling a red-haired dog (why are the redheads always given such a hard time?) in oil, adding worms and pig bone marrow. Patients with liver pain were advised to drink a pint of ale every morning for a week, but don’t forget to drown nine head-lice in it. It’ll really enhance the taste! Crushed beetle shampoo was prescribed for baldness and was followed up with an application of grease from the fat of a dead fox. Asthma sufferers tackled the frog in their throat quite literally by swallowing a young frog or live spider covered in butter so that it would just slide down the throat.

Powdered human skull, bone-marrow mixed with sweat, a stone that killed a she-bear and fresh cream mixed with the blood of a black cat’s tail were other cures of the day. The cure to top it all, however, has to be the oil of newborn puppies that are cut up and mixed with earthworms. Its calming effect was used to treat paralysis and nervous conditions. Quack! Quack! Quack! Egyptians also had some crazy remedies in store, including a cure for bad breath by putting a freshly killed hot mouse in your mouth. Popular contraceptive methods were crocodile dung, honey and oil.

Leech therapy or hirudotherapy dates back 2,500 years and actually made a comeback in the 1980s. It was used to let blood in sufferers of the Great Plague of London from 1665 to 1666. Sufferers slit their wrists to release what they thought to be infected blood, which sometimes triggered infections or caused them to bleed to death. Sitting in a sewer with a live chicken’s shaved bum held against your armpit (one symptom was buboes or inflammatory swelling of the lymph nodes, which often affected the armpits) was another remedy.

If all else failed, whipping yourself and running through the town naked was also worth a try or how about scrubbing your scalp with the urine from the rats who actually carried the plague? Tragically, the persecution of cats because of their association with witches further contributed to the spread of such plagues as there was a shortage of cats to kill the rats.

Sadly, there are also accounts of people walling in plague victims to prevent the infection from spreading. The Derbyshire town of Eyam, not far from where I grew up, is famous in England for cutting itself off from the rest of civilization in an effort to isolate the infection. Interestingly, some villagers survived and research suggests that they actually had genetic protection in the form of a gene mutation dubbed Delta 32, which is also thought to provide protection against HIV/AIDS.

I love learning about the history of medicine. In the past and in the present, you don’t have to go far to find what could potentially be dubbed as a crazy treatment, but it never ceases to amaze me that some physicians many millennia ago actually got it right. I also hope that one day more research will be devoted to a satisfactory treatment and possibly a cure of thyroid disease.

Hope this was an interesting read!

Love,

Sarah

References

  1. YouTube clips of kids’ show Horrible Histories:
  2. The History of the Thyroid Gland:
  3. A Short History of the Thyroid Gland:
  4. Homeopathic Perspective on Thyroid Disorders:
  5. The History of Health Insurance:
  6. Thyroid Transplant: From A Rabbit?:
  7. Italian Thyroid Breakthrough: Self-transplants!:
  8. A History of Plastic Surgery:
  9. Burke and Hare Murders:
  10. Prehistoric Medicine:
  11. Electroconvulsive Therapy:
  12. The Urine Cure and Other Curious Medical Treatments:
  13. Foul Facts Gallery: Terrible Tudors, Vile Victorians:
  14. Horrible Histories Press Pack: Horrible Historical Facts:
  15. Health Hazards and Cures in Ancient Egypt:
  16. Wikipedia “Leech” entry:
  17. Cats and the Black Plague:
  18. What were cures for the black plague or black death?:
  19. Consequences of the Black Death:
  20. Wikipedia “Eyam” entry:
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33 Responses to “Flying With Broken Wings: Curious Cures, Rank Remedies and Questionable Quacks

  1. Elizabeth says:

    eww. So glad I live today!

  2. Lolly says:

    Hmmm some of those remedies I wouldn’t mind trying, might even be better than the treatment we have today.

    Very interesting and thought provoking and actually my dinner is now all over the computer screen, but i enjoyed reading through it. Now just to go clean up.:-)

    Another great column Sarah

  3. Should I be ashamed, as an adult, to confess that I *LOVE* the Horrible Histories books? Well I do, and I loved this article too, thanks Sarah!

    I wonder what it’ll be like in a 100 yrs time to look back, with an historians eye, and analyse the treatment options we have available to us now?

  4. Hey Elizabeth, some of these gruesome historical treatments really put it into perspective what we have to go through today, don’t they?:-)

  5. Hey Lolly, I know what you mean – considering that some of those historical doctors actually got it right. I found it interesting to read that in the Middle Ages Arabian doctors were far ahead of European ones, so I guess whether or not your treatment killed you often depended on where you lived too.

  6. No, Elizabeth – you should not be ashamed. I’m currently reading Gorgeous Georgian (just finished Awesome Egyptians) and about to start on Vicious Vikings;-). Have you been lucky enough to see the BBC kids’ series of Horrible Histories (we’re going to get it on DVD as it recently came out. There was a prior animated series, but this series is with live actors and it’s bloody hilarious!)

    I think many historians would be very shocked if they went back in to. Even the Victorian era (which comparably wasn’t that long ago) was pretty rank when it came to say hygiene. For instance, you know that parents who didn’t want their child would send them to a woman called a baby farmer? Doesn’t sound too great compared to today’s adoption, eh?

    I’ve always loved history and almost took it further in school, but I was interested in some other subject, so ended up not pursuing it. What fascinates me about history is how people lived back then and these books describe it very, very well.

  7. PS: Lolly – sorry for making you spew up your dinner! Don’t waste those Yorkshires!;-)

  8. Lolly says:

    Sarah,

    I’m not that squeamish really, although some programs I have to turn away when there are gross bits.
    maggots are a great thing for ulcerated skin they eat away at the necrosed part but have to be taken off before they go any further, so some things are beneficial no matter how gross they may seem, they actually do work in the case of leech therapy.

    I too have a fascination with history, we lived quite barbaric lives in days gone by, now we have technology at our fingertips and we still don’t get it right.

    some places are modifying the old style treatments with newer methods like seaweed dressings has healing properites for infection/skin. I still today use lavendar taken from my garden for headaches rubbing it on my temples works a treat.

  9. Hey Lolly,

    Totally agree – some of these traditional remedies can work a treat. Leach and maggot therapy have both made a comeback, right? I have even heard that urine can help to clean wounds or with veruccas.

    I too like lavender for headaches. I have an eyepad that is stuffed with lavender, mint and other herbs and it is soothing and relaxing.

    So true – technology at our fingertips and we still manage to fuck it up at times. For instance, they were using NDT way back when and now many doctors poo-poo it and say it doesn’t work, even though so many people do better on it.

  10. Sarah, this was such an interesting read!!! So if I pour urine on my neck, will it cure my cancer? Because that would be a heck of a lot cheaper than my current course of treatment!
    😉

  11. Hey Joanna, thanks for your comments. Glad you liked the article! I wish it were that simple to cure cancer. For all we know, it may well be in years to come. It is interesting to think how future generations may look back at our medicine and wonder at how primitive it is, just as we look back at some of the medicine in the past.

  12. Miriam says:

    What an interesting article Sarah. Thanks for researching this, I was horrified reading all those treatments that people those days thought were cures for common illnesses that modern medicine cures today.

    Ugh!! I was astounded at the treatment they used in those days. The thought of drinking urine and other horrendous treatments is unrepeatable!!! So glad I didn’t live in those times and having to endure those horrendous treatments. Though I suppose future generations will say the same about medical treatments in the 21st century. Medicine has certainly advanced a great deal in the last few hundred years.

    I know people are living longer thanks to the advancement of medicine and reading all the horrific medical treatments I can well understand why people died much younger than we do these days!!

    Keep those interesting articles coming. I certainly look forward to reading them every week :-).

  13. Hey Miriam,

    Glad you enjoyed the article. It was fun to research and I learned so much. Actually, drinking urine is a modern remedy that some people still use today!

    We are lucky for all the medical advancements, but I can’t help that wish that they had more effective treatment for thyroid disease. Maybe, when I try the NDT I will find it to be more effective, but the synthetic stuff doesn’t seem super effective – at least not as effective as I’d like.

    Thanks for all your support.

  14. Heide says:

    great article! My son was so fearful of getting his wart frozen of the Dr said then use duct tape, I thought she was crazy but we tried it and it worked, I was amazed, On the other hand my mom developed breast cancer and had woke with a radical mastectomy, Dr had not even mentioned it could happen. she went on to have over 50 reconstruction surgery’s with silicone implants for most and developed infection one time were they would leave the wounds open and she went to Dr daily for them to run q-tips through the openings in the office, at time she was on Medicaid and it would not pay for lidacain or any Anastasia foe office visits and the Dr was to busy to meet her at hospital. another attempt with implants her body pushed the implant out through the muscle wall, so yet another Dr removed it in office wo anesthesia. The last implant she found records that the Dr had rinsed off the implant and replaced it and the next day he was admitted for a highly contagious illness i was to young to remember. please don’t let these frighten you it was in the 70’s and medical is much better.

  15. Thank you Heide. Glad you enjoyed the article. Poor Vinny – glad that duct tape worked after all! I’ve had plantar warts (on the sole of my feet) frozen and it’s not as painful as one might think. Those are particularly stubborn, so they say that it is best to freeze them rather than just excise them/cut them out because then you risk leaving the root of the wart in the foot. Pain in the neck (or foot!) though because it took months and months (twice a week for a year, I think) until it was completely gone.

    I am so sorry to hear about your mother’s terrible treatment. Thank you for sharing this with us. It sounds horrifically cruel and I can’t believe Medicaid wouldn’t pay for anesthesia.

  16. Katie Schwartz says:

    I am so in love with this particular installation. I love all of Sarah’s columns. To learn about the history of medicine and thyroid was so fascinating. What a journey…

    Sarah – thank you for writing this incredible article.

    xo
    katie

  17. Sarah Downing says:

    Katie, thanks for your kind word. So glad you enjoyed this instalment. I also really enjoyed writing it!

  18. Lori says:

    It’s hard to imagine people enduring some of these treatments, while others don’t sound so bad really. Although some of it was quit unpleasant to fathom, I loved this article. It definitely puts some things into perspective. I wondered about thyroid transplants so it was very interesting to read what has been tried. It also shows how behind the times research is on thyroid diseases.

    This article is really one of my favorites, for sure.

  19. Hey Lori, so glad you enjoyed the article. I also thought it put things into perspective in terms of what we have to go through these days. I was always curious about thyroid transplants, which is why I did the research. Originally, I wanted to write the whole article on thyroid disease until I realised that it would be much more interesting to write it on illness in general. I have another upcoming history article on the history of the stigma of illness. I’ve done quite a bit of research, but I have to get round to writing it first.

  20. Lori says:

    I love that you incorporated illness in general. It was a great idea and it is VERY interesting. I’m thinking/hoping this may encourage other readers as well.

  21. Thanks Lori. I feel like all of a sudden I don’t have as many readers as I used to.

    Hugs,

    S

  22. Lori says:

    I certainly hope that’s not the case, Sarah.

  23. Sarah Downing says:

    Me either. It just seems like things have been a bit slower with responses in general since the site has gone back up, but I don’t actually know how many hits each pages is getting and that is the true test.

  24. Lolly says:

    Sarah it takes time for things to get back to some normality some people may find navigating the site confusing at first until they get the hang of it.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with your great column just the newness of the place it will soon pick up. even I have been missing posts and letters that have been posted because I couldn’t find them. I see Katie has put them in a different place now, which is much easier it’s just getting used to it. and the steadhy stream of out thyamily coming back to the Mothership.

    Lollyx

  25. Lolly says:

    that last bit should have read “And the steady stream of our thyamily coming back to the Mothership”.

  26. Sarah Downing says:

    Thanks Lolly. That makes perfect sense of course. I just tend to be hard on myself at times.

  27. Melissa Travis says:

    Sarah – OMG – Loving all the research you put into this!!!

    Crazy quacks indeed!! And some lucky people who survived in spite of it all!!
    I’m constantly in awe of the healing spirit of the body.
    Fabulous article!
    xx
    Melissa

  28. Thanks for your comments Melly. Glad you liked the article. It took me bloody ages to write, but it was fascinating to read about and I learned so much. It really is amazing that even back then some doctors got it right and hundreds of years ago docs were prescribing some kind of natural desiccated thyroid! I think today’s doctors can learn from that!
    Love, Sarah

  29. Melissa says:

    I love this article Sarah! many interesting historical facts…great research. It kind of helped me open my mind with my medical phobia**** I’m not an ideal thyroid patient because I’m still easing myself into becoming a better thyroid patient for myself. Not fast enough as I could be, not doing as much application(medical cost a slight excuse), education or correct diet as I could be; partly due to still living with one foot “trying to be normal” or battling a refusal to be a prisoner of my disease. I hope in time, I will be a better thyroid patient for myself embracing all of the facts better sooner than later. Thank you everyone for your contribution and support 🙂

  30. Thank you very much, Melissa! So glad you enjoyed the article. I think it’s important to take things at your own pace and I also think we have a right to feel normal or at least try and feel normal. None of us should feel as if we are a “prisoner to our disease”, but I know so many of us do because for some of us it does stop us doing certain things. I am sure you will get where you want to be in the end and we English-speaking patients are very lucky as there is such a huge wealth of information on thyroid disease in our language. I’m currently putting together a list of German-language thyroid resources and I don’t think they are nearly as good as what we have available here. We are happy to support you here on Dear Thyroid and please always feel free to ask any questions you may have. Some people want to learn a lot about their disease really fast and others want to take it at a slower pace – both are equally valid approaches and we have to do what we feel comfortable with or it might end up overwhelming us. It’s a lot of new things to learn. Speaking for me personally, I feel very lucky because although I have suffered a lot because of my disease, I don’t feel that it has stopped me from doing anything and I don’t think it ever will, but I am well aware that that is so dependent on the individual’s symptoms and progression of the disease. I think many of us end up feeling inferior to the rest of society, but I just see this whole thyroid thing as an extra challenge to deal with and I’ve had challenges to deal with in the past that I have overcome and so I’m determined to overcome this one, too. Knowing about my disease makes me feel much more in control of my healing process as it has enabled me to work closely with my doctor to get the right tests and find the right medicines. Wishing you great progress, be good to yourself and, moreover, be patient with yourself!

    Love,

    Sarah

  31. Sarah Downing says:

    Cosmetology: Intriguing blog. Read a few other of your blogged content articles and I need to say it is becoming a daily habit of mine to keep coming back seeking new stuff lol. Keep up the great work.

    In reply to cosmetology and your previous comment (above), which I got by email, but for some reason is not showing up on the site. Thank you very much for the lovely compliment. I am very glad that you enjoyed the article. I loved writing it because I have a passion for history and every one of these articles teaches me so many new things.

    Love,

    Sarah

  32. Lolly says:

    Sarah,

    The reason it’s not showing up is because it’s a spam. Been a few this week at least DT is on the ball. I too have been getting them. if you see another just report it.

    Lollyxoxox

  33. Sarah Downing says:

    Well, that’s what I thought, Lolly, because that is why messages are usually deleted, but when you read the message it doesn’t sound like spam, which is why I replied to it. Spam messages usually sound quite different. Thanks for the heads-up though.

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