Unbelievable Medical History Facts That Prove Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

Medical theories and beliefs can undergo radical changes over time. Take beards. A few centuries ago, beards were out of fashion, and facial hair was seen… Khalid Elhassan - November 27, 2023

Medical theories and beliefs can undergo radical changes over time. Take beards. A few centuries ago, beards were out of fashion, and facial hair was seen as bodily waste, a repugnant substance best gotten rid of. Then facial hair made a major comeback in the Victorian era, driven in part by a medical belief that beards could prevent illness. Below are twenty five things about that and other odd medical history facts.

Clean shaven late Roman Republic leaders of the First Triumvirate, left to right, Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar. Wikimedia

Medical Opinions Once Saw Beards as Bodily Waste

Beards, once considered outdated in the Western world, experienced a resurgence in popularity, largely attributed to the influence of hipster culture. However, this cyclical pattern is not new, as beards have faced shifts in fashion throughout history. In ancient Greece, for example, beards were initially in vogue but fell out of favor during the Hellenistic era. A similar trend occurred in the early Roman Republic, where leaders sported beards, only for the clean-shaven look to dominate for centuries until Emperor Hadrian reintroduced facial hair as a fashionable choice. The medieval era witnessed fluctuating beard trends, but by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, medical beliefs deemed facial hair a form of bodily waste, leading to a prevailing preference for shaved faces among Enlightenment-era men.

The nineteenth century witnessed a dramatic reversal in facial hair trends, driven by the Victorian ideal of rugged manliness. The resurgence of beards aligned with changing cultural norms and medical opinions touting health benefits. Victorian doctors, influenced by concerns about air pollution from the Industrial Revolution and emerging germ theory, theorized that thick beards could filter out harmful particles and prevent illnesses. Despite later revelations that beards cannot effectively filter air and may even increase infection risks by trapping germs, the nineteenth-century fascination with facial hair reveals how evolving cultural ideals and incomplete medical understanding often shape grooming trends.

Medical - An American Civil War hospital
An American Civil War hospital. PBS

An American Opiate Addiction Epidemic – in the Nineteenth Century

The American Civil War stands as the bloodiest conflict in the nation’s history, resulting in casualties that surpassed the combined toll of all previous U.S. wars. Approximately 10 percent of Northern males and a staggering 30 percent of Southern males are believed to have perished during the war, with modern estimates ranging from 785,000 to 1 million deaths. This latter figure, constituting 3.2% of the total U.S. population at the time, would equate to around eleven million deaths if projected onto the 2023 population estimates. As one of the first major “modern” wars, the American Civil War witnessed advances in weaponry that outpaced improvements in battlefield tactics, leading to unprecedented challenges for the military medical establishment and resulting in high casualties and horrifying injuries.

Medical care standards during the Civil War were notably deficient compared to modern norms, resembling those of the Napoleonic era half a century earlier. However, a significant exception lay in the field of pain management. Despite lacking knowledge of antiseptic practices, Civil War physicians could alleviate the suffering of wounded soldiers thanks to the recent invention of the hypodermic needle and the discovery of morphine. Soldiers, especially in the Union Army, often received substantial doses of morphine or opium to numb the pain of surgeries and amputations. This liberal use of drugs during the war resulted in over 400,000 Civil War veterans developing morphine addiction, commonly referred to as “Soldiers Disease,” with many recognizable by the small bag containing morphine tablets and a hypodermic needle that hung from a leather thong around their necks after discharge from hospitals.

People in the American Colonies liked their booze. Charleston County Public Library

The Other Addiction Epidemic

Prohibition, often viewed as a historical blunder, did not arise in isolation but was a response to a genuine and substantial issue: widespread alcohol abuse in the United States. In the years leading up to Prohibition, America had gained a reputation as a nation with a penchant for alcohol consumption that far exceeded contemporary norms. Traveler Frederick Marryat marveled at American drinking habits in 1839, noting that the populace seemed to turn to alcohol for almost every occasion, from celebrations to commiserations. Even before the country’s founding, the American Colonies were known for their heavy drinking, with Benjamin Franklin documenting over 200 terms for “drunk” in the 1730s.

As the young nation matured, alcohol remained ingrained in its social fabric. Influential figures like James Madison, John Adams, and George Washington were known for their daily alcohol consumption. By the early 19th century, the prevalence of hard liquor had become so extensive that it cost less than tea. Soldiers in the U.S. Army received a daily ration of four ounces of whiskey, and it was widely acknowledged that workers often skipped Mondays due to weekend hangovers. With alcohol deeply woven into the nation’s lifestyle, the temperance movement emerged to combat the alarming rates of alcohol abuse. Initially advocating for individual reform, the movement gradually shifted toward the more radical stance of prohibition as persuasion efforts proved insufficient in curbing the widespread epidemic of alcohol abuse.

Ancient Roman lead pipes. Atlas Obscura

Ancient Roman Lead Exposure

Nowadays, thanks to advancements in medical knowledge, we know that lead should be avoided as much as possible. It once was used in children’s toys, but not anymore, and it is no longer a key ingredient in paint like it was back in the days. In ancient Rome, however, people were ignorant of what we now know of lead’s adverse health effect. So they put it to widespread use in ways that modern medical science has shown to be quite dangerous. For example, lead was widely used in Roman hair dyes. Rich Romans also used lead pipes to carry water to their homes, and it is theorized that those pipes caused widespread lead poisoning. That might explain why so many Roman rulers were such lunatics.

Recent research has pushed back against that theory, on grounds that lead levels from Roman pipes might not have been as hazardous as previously thought. However, Romans were still exposed to lead in a variety of other ways that ensured they ingested it at exceptionally high levels. They drank water and wine from lead jugs, poured into lead cups. Their cooking pots were made of lead. They used amphorae to transport and store chief staples such as wine, olive oil, and their favorite sauce – a rotten fish concoction called garum. Lead was used to seal those amphorae, so lead particles made it into just about every sip of wine, or bite of their staple meal – bread dipped into olive oil or garnished with garum. Lead was also used in jewelry, to keep precious stones in place.

Zulu warriors annihilate the British at the Battle of Isandlwana. Imgur

Zulu Magic Mushrooms

In 1878, Britain aimed to forge a united South Africa under a federation similar to Canada, appointing Sir Henry Bartle Frere as High Commissioner for this ambitious task. Frere’s mission, however, faced significant hurdles with the presence of independent states like the South African Republic of the Boers and the Zulu Kingdom. To eliminate these entities and establish British control, Frere, without government approval, initiated the Anglo-Zulu War in December 1878. Attempting to provoke hostilities, he presented the Zulus with an ultimatum they couldn’t comply with, leading to a British invasion of Zululand.

The conflict took an unexpected turn in January 1879 when a formidable Zulu charge at the Battle of Isandlwana virtually annihilated a British column of 1800 troops. The Zulus’ extraordinary courage and fearlessness were not only rooted in native traditions but were also amplified by the use of potent drugs administered by Zulu shamans. The concoction included a high-THC cannabis snuff, an extract from Boophone disticha with properties akin to codeine and morphine, and psychedelic mushrooms containing muscimol. This drug combination heightened the warriors’ alertness, focus, and fearlessness, contributing to the British’s astonishment at the Zulus’ formidable resistance. Despite the Zulus’ initial successes, the British, leveraging modern weaponry, regrouped and decisively defeated them at the Battle of Ulundi in July 1879, leading to the dissolution of the Zulu Kingdom and the partitioning of its territory among compliant chieftains.

Medical - Dr. Robert Liston
Dr. Robert Liston. Pinterest

The Medical Establishment Used to be Obsessed With Speed Surgeries

Bad doctors and medical screw-ups are not exactly rare. Indeed, thanks to negligent or outright incompetent medical professionals, there is a thriving field in the legal profession that focuses solely on medical malpractice. Fortunately for Dr. Robert Liston (1794 – 1847) of London, he practiced in an era when, and in a country where, medical malpractice litigation was not the booming business it is today in the US. If not, medical malpractice lawyers would have had a field day suing him for that one time he managed to kill three people during a single surgery.

To make matters worse, two of the victims were not even patients. Dr. Liston was a surgeon known for his speed. In the days before anesthetics, an ability to operate speedily was a decided plus. It meant that patients spent less time enduring excruciating pain as a surgeon cut into them. It also increased the odds of survival, lessened the odds of patients going into shock, and also reduced the time in which their vitals were exposed to germs and other vectors of infection.

Medical - A nineteenth century surgery
A nineteenth century surgery. Wikimedia

History’s Most Lethal Surgery?

Dr. Liston was famous for his ability to complete operations in a matter of seconds, and amputate a leg in just two and a half minutes. Unsurprisingly, chances for a mistake were pretty high. Dr. Liston played up his reputation for speedy surgery for all it was worth. Unlike today, surgeries back then were spectator events open to the public, and galleries surrounded operating rooms for observers to watch what was going on. As he brandished his cutting tools, Dr. Liston would often shout to the audience “time me, gentlemen!” It became his catchphrase.

During one surgery to amputate a leg, Dr. Liston accidently severed the fingers off the hand of a medical assistant who was holding down the patient’s leg. Liston continued with the job, and took off the patient’s leg. Both patient and assistant got gangrene, and died within a few days. As he frenziedly sliced away, Dr. Liston also accidentally cut an elderly spectator’s coat. The old man was not hurt, but he was splattered with blood from patient’s amputated leg and the medical assistant’s severed fingers. The elderly spectator thought that he had been wounded, panicked, had a heart attack, and died.

A fat men’s club get together. Imgur

The Gathering of the Rotund

In addition to popular culture that frowns at fat, it is an established medical fact nowadays that obesity is bad. The profits of the modern era’s weight loss industry expand in tandem with the expansion of our waistlines. However, the existence of such an industry would have baffled our ancestors. Most of them probably wished they were so lucky as to have to worry about being too fat. Between running from saber toothed tigers or back breaking toil as peasants and serfs, they were neither sedentary enough, nor had that much extra (or even enough) to eat to pack on the pounds. When food and leisure were scarce, to be plump was a sign of good fortune. And throughout history, the fortunate have loved to showcase their good fortune. Which explains the rise of fat men’s clubs in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America.

Well-heeled fat men got together to celebrate and showcase their obesity, and membership was contingent on weight – usually, a 200 pounds minimum. At their get-togethers they had weigh-ins that often got competitive. Especially at clubs that assigned roles based on weight, with the fattest appointed president, the second chunkiest treasurer, and so on. Nowadays we try to pretend that we weight less than we actually do. In yesteryear’s fat clubs, however, members went to great lengths to add weight at weigh-ins, and stuffed their pockets with coins, among other shenanigans. It wasn’t until the 1920s, when medical knowledge advanced sufficiently to establish a link between obesity and poor health, that fat men’s clubs declined. One of the biggest, the New England Fat Men’s Club, last met in 1924. By then, membership had dropped from 10,000 to just 38, and when none passed the weigh-in, the club disbanded.

Medical - An early Kaffee Hag advertisement
An early Kaffee Hag advertisement. K-Pics

The Popular Medical Belief That Coffee Was Poison

Ludwig Roselius (1874 – 1943), a German businessman and coffee merchant, was conflicted about his profession. On the one hand, he sold coffee for a living. On the other hand, he thought that caffeine was “poison”, and that too much coffee and caffeine had killed his father. In a way, it seems like the setup for a comic book super villain’s origin story. One of the lamer super villains, perhaps, desperate to visit vengeance upon the evil caffeine that slew his Dear Papa. Then a random mistake in real life gave him a chance to strike a blow against caffeine.

Roselius received a shipment in 1903 that contained a box whose coffee had accidentally been soaked in seawater. When the coffee was brewed, it was discovered that the seawater had removed most of the caffeine from the beans, and the coffee did had not lost that much of its flavor. That got Roselius started on a series of experiments, and in 1906 he patented a method to decaffeinate coffee with steam and acids. The resultant product was sold as Kaffee Hag throughout much of Europe, and as Sanka in France and the US. Both are now Kraft Foods brands.

Crystal Meth Pills Were a Common Medical Prescription for Nazi Soldiers


Medical - Pervitin
Pervitin. Is It Paleo

Nazi Super Soldiers Were Just Tweaking

In World War II, the German military provided its troops with Pervitin, a pill containing methamphetamine, to enhance alertness and alleviate fatigue. Developed in 1938, this methamphetamine compound was initially seen as a miracle drug by high-ranking army doctor Otto Ranke, who conducted experiments on university students to observe its effects. Pervitin, essentially crystal meth, was subsequently approved for mass production and distribution to German soldiers. During the blitzkrieg in 1940, reports of German soldiers’ inexplicable energy and tirelessness alarmed the Western Allies. The Nazis’ relentless advance and combat stamina were attributed to the widespread use of Pervitin, which soldiers were encouraged to take to fight fatigue. Despite being labeled as an “Alertness Aid” for occasional use, many soldiers became addicted, leading to adverse effects such as sweating, dizziness, depression, hallucinations, and psychotic episodes.

As Operation Barbarossa unfolded in 1941, over two million Pervitin pills were issued to German troops for the invasion of the Soviet Union, earning the nickname “tank chocolate.” However, the prolonged use of crystal meth took a toll on the soldiers, resulting in negative medical consequences. Many became addicts, experiencing severe side effects, including hallucinations and psychotic episodes that led to self-inflicted harm or harm to comrades. Despite the initial feats of stamina and endurance, the German command faced serious problems due to the long-term impact of hooking soldiers on crystal meth. Adolf Hitler himself was a regular user of Pervitin, and as the war progressed, his reliance on a daily drug concoction, including crystal meth in Pervitin form and cocaine, potentially influenced his wartime decisions and physical well-being.


Before the Medical Downside of Obesity Was Widely Known, Fat Was Celebrated

Unlike today, to be fat used to be admired throughout much of history. It meant that you were prosperous and had all you can eat (and more). Skinny was not attractive, but was a sign that somebody did not have enough to eat, suffered from poor health, or both. Chunky was desirable, as illustrated by Rubens’ standards of beauty, above. Some went beyond Rubenesque, though, and got a tad carried away. Take King Rumanika, a nineteenth ruler of Buganda in central Africa, who liked extremely fat women.

His Majesty had a harem of big ladies. So big, they couldn’t even stand. Rather than walk, they waddled about like elephant seals. They were fed – or more accurately, force fed – a porridge heavy on goat’s milk to keep them pleasantly plump. As in literally force fed: Rumanika had servants stand over his big mamas at mealtimes with whips to make sure they finished all the food they were given, and flog them if they didn’t until they did. To this day, fat women are seen as desirable in many parts of the world, while “model thin” skinny girls are pitied – when their skinniness is not viewed with revulsion, that is.

Medical - Ancient Romans whitened their teeth with pee
Ancient Romans whitened their teeth with pee. Pinterest

The Medical Benefits of Pee as a Mouthwash?

Ancient Roman poet Catullus (circa 84 – circa 54 BC) once insulted a man named Egnatius, whose smile the poet seems to have disliked. How the insult was phrased reveals something unusual about Romans’ day-to-day lives: they cleaned their mouths with pee. As the poet put it in his put down: “There’s nothing more foolish than foolishly smiling. Now you’re Spanish – in the country of Spain what each man pisses, he’s used to brushing his teeth and red gums with, every morning, so the fact that your teeth are so polished just shows you’re more full of piss“.

The abnormal practice decried by Catullus was that Egnatius smiled too much, which was bad because smiles were presumably worthless. The diss was not about the cleaning-one’s-mouth-with-pee bit: for ancient Romans, that was perfectly normal. Urine’s active ingredient is ammonia, which the body secretes in the form of urea. Today, we use ammonia in many things, from explosives to cleaning products to agricultural fertilizers. Not only will ammonia remove stubborn stains from your bathtub and oven, it will also leave your dishes and glasses glossy and shiny.

Ancient Origins Medicine.

The Widespread Use of Pee in Ancient Rome

In ancient Rome, ammonia, a compound with various industrial and medicinal applications, was obtained from urine due to a lack of modern extraction processes. The Romans utilized urine extensively in daily life, including in laundry processes in public laundries known as fullonica. Stale urine served as a cleaning agent for soaking and stomping on dirty clothes to remove stains. Additionally, urine mixed with feces found applications in agriculture and hide tanning. Given its significance, the collection of urine became a thriving business, with public chamber pots and vats facilitating its widespread availability. Beyond industrial and commercial uses, urine also played a role in ancient Roman medicine. Pliny the Elder endorsed the effectiveness of stale urine in treating diaper rashes and highlighted fresh urine’s healing properties for sores, burns, infections, chaps, and scorpion stings.

Remarkably, the urine industry in ancient Rome attracted government attention, subjecting tradesmen specializing in urine collection to taxes. Emperor Vespasian implemented a tax on public urinals, a revenue scheme that faced ridicule. When criticized for the undignified taxation of bodily excreta, Vespasian famously held a coin beneath his nose, asserting that “money does not smell.” This phrase became a Latin proverb, reflecting the pragmatic approach of the Roman government to taxation and revenue generation from everyday practices.

Medical - Casualties of the 1665 London Plague
Casualties of the 1665 London Plague. History Today

When People Swore by the Positive Medical Properties of Farts

The Great Plague of London, which began in 1665, was England’s last major bubonic plague outbreak. It was not as bad as the Black Death had been a few centuries before, but it was bad enough. In a year and half, over 100,000 perished, with nasty symptoms that included stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhea, and copious rectal bleeding. Medical knowledge at the time was dismal, and people got desperate for a method to combat or cure the plague. In their desperation, some doctors turned to a radical remedy: sniffing farts from a jar.

The basic medical premise was that the plague was caused by a miasma, or toxic vapors in the air. Doctors figured that if people diluted the nasty air with something equally nasty, it might reduce their chances of catching the plague. So they told people to have something that smelled bad at hand. To wit, that they store their farts in jars and seal them in. That way if the plague showed up in their neighborhood, they could open the jars, and breathe in the fart fumes to ward off the plague’s bad vapors. It goes without saying that fart-huffing did not actually save anybody from the plague.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Alcohol Problems and Solutions – Alcohol Rations in US Military History

All That is Interesting – How Drugs Like Pervitin and Cocaine Fueled the Nazis’ Rise and Fall

American College of Surgeons – Time Me, Gentlemen! The Bravado and Bravery of Robert Liston

Ancient Origins – Ancient Romans Brushed Their Teeth With Urine

Atlas Obscura – The Fat Men’s Clubs That Revelled in Excess

Behr, Edward – Prohibition: Thirteen Yeas That Changed America (1996)

Burns, Eric – The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (2003)

Cracked – Victorian Doctors (Wrongly) Thought Beards Could Prevent Diseases

Eyewitness to History – The Flagellants Attempt to Repel the Black Death, 1349

Haviland, David – Why You Should Store Your Farts in a Jar & Other Oddball or Gross Maladies, Afflictions, Remedies, and “Cures” (2010)

Heritage Portal – The Use of So-Called ‘Magic Mushrooms’ by Zulu Warriors

History Collection – The Life of a Medieval Doctor

Insider, May 14th, 2014 – How Bad Medical Advice Helped Make Beards Trendy

Lukasz, Kamienski – Shooting Up: A Short History of Drugs and War (2016)

Mayo Clinic – Lead Poisoning

Moorehead, Alan – The White Nile (1960)

Nescafe – What is Decaf Coffee?

NPR – Dining Like Darwin: When Scientists Swallow Their Subjects

NPR – The Forgotten History of Fat Men’s Clubs

Ohler, Norman – Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich (2017)

Providentia – Soldier’s Disease

Sherwood, Andrew N., et al Greek and Roman Technology, a Sourcebook of Translated Greek and Roman Texts (2019)

Smithsonian Magazine, December 2005 – The Evolution of Charles Darwin

Stuff – The Torturous Path to Finding the Source of the Nile

Vintage News – The Romans Used Urine For Mouthwash

Virginia Museum of History and Culture – Opiate Addiction in the Civil War’s Aftermath

Withey, Dr. Alun – The Medical Case for Beards in the 19th Century