Humans have sought to prevent and treat disease since time immemorial. But it’s only relatively recently that scientists and doctors have developed the means to better pinpoint the causes of disease and test the efficacy of remedies. For centuries, physicians and healers around the world often prescribed treatments that not only didn’t help but actually harmed patients.
“A lot of this really came from not understanding how the human body worked and not having a good concept of modern pharmacology,” says Lydia Kang, a physician based in Omaha, Nebraska, and co-author of Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. “Without those two headlights guiding your way, you’re kind of blundering around in the dark trying this or that to see what’s working.”
Over the past century or so, the scientific process, germ theory, the discovery of penicillin and more all shifted the medical zeitgeist, making many false remedies obsolete. Here, though, are a few of the more harmful and sometimes deadly examples that Kang dug up in researching Quackery.
Mercury was ubiquitously prescribed to treat a range of ailments, from melancholy and constipation to syphilis and influenza. The first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, turned to mercury in a bid to live forever — only to die of it. “This was his attempt to become immortal, and it did the absolute opposite,” Kang says. Later, mercury prescribed for teething pain in infants caused an epidemic of an affliction called Pink’s disease, in which a child’s skin would blister and split. By the 1950s, physicians had finally caught on and removed mercury-based medications from pharmacopeias.
Arsenic was sometimes called “the inheritance powder” and “the poison of kings” for its use as an assassination tool for claiming royal thrones. But through the 19th century, the highly toxic natural chemical was also used to treat fever, stomachaches, syphilis, rheumatism, parasitic infection and more. If taken at sublethal quantities over time, arsenic can cause cardiac problems, cancer and, eventually, death. In children, it also causes cognitive issues. Today, arsenic is still used to treat acute promyelocytic leukemia, and another toxic arsenical compound (Melarsoprol) is sometimes administered for late-stage African sleeping sickness.
Antimony, a soft, grayish metal, became a favorite remedy around 3000 BCE for practitioners of humorism, a system of medicine that posited that health depends on balancing key bodily fluids. When ingested, antimony causes intense vomiting, so users took it to lower their bile levels. Antimony-based “puke chalices” were popular in the 17th century, and some families even handed “everlasting pills” of antimony — repeatedly recovered from vomit or diarrhea — down through generations. Later, scientists learned that, in addition to sometimes causing kidney failure and deadly convulsions, antimony is carcinogenic.
Marie Curie and her husband famously discovered radium in 1898. The Curies and others were interested in the medical applications of the radioactive element, which they saw as literally glowing with promise, after observing that tumors shrank in its presence. Radium “was very trendy,” Kang says. By the 1930s, however, the market for radium-based products had collapsed due to high-profile deaths linked to this carcinogenic substance — including, in 1934, the death of Curie herself. Radium is still used today in a controlled manner to treat certain types of prostate cancer.
People have used cocaine as a stimulant since 3000 BCE. In the 19th century, cocaine was available in over-the-counter medications, including as a topical anesthetic and as an ingredient in teething syrups for infants. Coca-Cola’s first recipe, introduced to the market in 1886, also included cocaine. While cocaine in small amounts isn’t poisonous, it is addictive and can cause short- and long-term health problems ranging from headaches and heart disease to lung damage and loss of smell. Acute cocaine poisoning can cause seizures, heart attacks and death. As Kang says, “Nearly anything can be poisonous; it just depends on how you use it and the dose.”
In small amounts, strychnine can act as a short-term stimulant. In the 19th century, medical students took it as a sort of Adderall du jour, and in the early 20th century, it briefly enjoyed popularity as an energy drink. In 1904, American Olympic runner Thomas Hicks took two doses of strychnine given to him by his trainers during a marathon. Hicks almost died, but he won the race. Strychnine tonics — famously consumed by Adolf Hitler — stayed in vogue until the 1970s, when the toxic alkaloid was finally removed from medical use. But strychnine is still tested for prior to athletic competitions to ensure it’s not being used for doping.
As far back as 2500 BCE, Chinese healers associated the consumption of gold with longevity. Following this line of thinking, 14th-century medieval alchemists created a drinkable gold, which the 16th-century Swiss physician Paracelsus claimed made the body “indestructible” and would cure mania and epilepsy. In fact, drinkable gold was toxic and was later linked to kidney damage. Up until the 19th century, though, gold continued to be touted as a cure for syphilis and alcoholism.
Eating the dead isn’t necessarily poisonous, but it can be unsanitary, increases risk of infectious diseases and provides no medicinal value. Yet for centuries, body parts and blood were called upon in medical remedies. Following hanging executions in England, passersby would rub their sores against the dangling corpse in an attempt to capture its healing power, and executioners would harvest human skin and fat and render it down to sell as “man’s grease.” From the 16th to late 18th century, a lucrative international mummy trade fueled a craze for powdered mummy, ingested as capsules and seen as “a sovereign remedy that could fix pretty much everything,” Kang says. Because of the scarcity of ancient mummies, a counterfeit mummy industry spun off, in which fraudsters would sell dirt in a jar, or pieces of fresher corpses. As Kang says, “There was definitely fake mummy going around.”