The Poison Chronicles: Dangerous Medicines of Centuries Past

What do dead pigeons, feces, and cannibalism all have in common? They were all part of ancient methods of human "healing," as explained by Eleanor Herman in part 3 of her Poison Chronicles, from her book The Royal Art of Poison. 

Eleanor Herman
6-minute read
Episode #52
image of bubonic plague and bacteria

No one likes going to the doctor, but we should all thank our lucky stars for modern medical treatments. Past practices were either deadly, gross, or a horrifying combination of the two.

We all know that doctors used to bleed their patients, incorrectly believing that bleeding would remove the body’s "evil humors," which would cause disease. Even George Washington was accidentally murdered by his doctor when they took 80 ounces—35 percent of his blood—in twelve hours. But many popular medical treatments were equally dangerous or disgusting. Ironically, the wealthy stood a greater chance of death by doctor, as these fatal physicians were expensive. Those too poor to summon a doctor relied on bed rest and chicken soup—and had a better chance of recovery.

Let’s look at several of the top treacherous treatments:

For rashes and other skin disorders, physicians prescribed ointments made of mercury, which absorbs easily through the skin and causes birth defects, kidney and liver problems, fatigue, irritability, tremors, depression, paranoia, mood swings, excess salivation, black teeth, and death.

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Doctors often used feces—bursting with bacteria, parasites, and infection—in medications. Horse feces was ingested by those with lung ailments. Rat droppings were eaten to ease constipation. Those suffering from nose bleeds were advised to thrust hog’s dung—still warm—up the nose. Human excrement, after being dried and powdered, was blown into the eye to cure ailments.

To cure constipation, doctors recommended giving quick-silver—a pound at a time—to a puppy, collecting it when it came out the other end, boiling it in vinegar, and drinking it. This gives new meaning to the term “toxic waste.”

Ironically, the wealthy stood a greater chance of death by doctor, as these fatal physicians were expensive.

Dead pigeons, roosters, and other birds were cut in half and applied still bleeding to the heads and feet of sick people to draw out their evil humors, and sometimes left there putrefying for days.

Physicians rubbed syphilis victims all over with mercury several times a day and placed them in tents to inhale mercury, which sometimes killed them on the spot. If it didn’t kill them, the poison might force the bacteria into remission, though the side effects were black saliva and teeth, deafness, tremors, and loss of parts of the jaw.


About the Author

Eleanor Herman Unknown History

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