Victorian Medical Practices That’ll Make You Glad You Live Today

Bad Air During Surgery If you needed surgery in the late 1800s or early 1900s, there was a very high risk of death. Doctors at the… Trista - December 20, 2022

The Victorian Era was an age of growth and scientific advancement. So that means all of the medical practices were cutting edge, right? Not exactly. While many practices might seem advanced for the time, it didn’t seem to prolong lives. Although Victorians who attained adulthood could expect to live into old age, average life expectancy at birth was low: in 1850 it was 40 for men and 42 for women. By 1900 it was 45 for men and 50 for women. Some of these practices you’re about to read about will probably astound you for how obviously bad they are. However, the Victorians were not privy to the consequences of these treatments like we are today. But we know one thing for sure: after learning about these Victorian medical practices, you’ll be grateful you weren’t alive to experience these.


Arsenic for Anemia

It may seem absolutely insane, but Arsenic was once used to treat anemia. Anemia occurs when the body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells. It’s treated today with medications to help the production of red blood cells. So, what made doctors use Arsenic? It was a standard treatment for a variety of conditions back in the day. Doctors used it to treat diseases such as anthrax, syphilis, and anemia. They must have believed in it since doctors used it to treat many ailments. In fact, by the early 19th century, Arsenic was being inhaled, injected, ingested, and given as enemas. Many people had symptoms from this wild remedy, including stomach distress, rashes, and headaches. They refer to this as Fowler’s Disease.

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Laxatives for Chickenpox

It’s hard to imagine your doctor telling you to take laxatives for something like chicken pox. But that’s exactly what doctors prescribed to people in Victorian times. Doctors believed they could cure the fevers from chicken pox by giving out laxatives. The chicken pox vaccine wasn’t readily available until the mid-1990s, so this was the chosen treatment for hundreds of years. You can now treat the fever alone with things like Tylenol and Ibuprofen. It’s a quick and easy way to kick that fever to the curb. Doctors during Victorian times believed laxatives such as castor oil would purge the body of the disease. In reality, it made patients stay close to the bathroom.

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Pesticides for Constipation

This is one of the medical treatments that are way out there. An extreme treatment was given to deal with a common issue: pesticides to help with constipation. It’s crazy and somewhat scary to think about how doctors treated these medical conditions in the Victorian era. One of the active ingredients in pesticides is Strychnine. A poisonous compound used to kill rodents and birds. This particular ingredient is what doctors prescribed during the Victorian period for illnesses such as constipation. The frightening thing is that just a tiny amount of Strychnine can cause convulsions. During the time, doctors believed using Strychnine could help relieve gastric distress.


Chloroform for Hiccups

Nowadays, people will tell you to hold your breath, try to scare you, or ask you to drink water if you get hiccups. They are frustrating at times but would you consider taking something like chloroform for relief? It sounds crazy, right? Well, that’s what doctors would prescribe in the 1800s for hiccups. Patients often inhaled chloroform, and doctors thought it would stop hiccups immediately. After a short time, doctors realized the immediate dangers of using such a dangerous gas. Chloroform can cause harmful side effects. People who ingest or inhale chloroform will experience problems with their skin, eyes, liver, kidneys, and nervous system. Doctors at the time also used nitroglycerin and a sugar/vinegar mixture to treat hiccups. Exposure to chloroform can actually cause cancer.

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Inhaling Smoke for Asthma

It is a bad idea to smoke if you have asthma. And if you have asthma, you probably already know don’t need extra irritants to hinder your breathing. But, in the Victorian era, doctors would actually prescribe inhaling smoke for asthma. They believed it could be beneficial to your lungs. They also noted that cannabis was advantageous to those with asthma. Doctors would prescribe cannabis, tobacco, and even Stramonium. Stramonium is a type of hallucinogenic nightshade often used during the 1800s and early 1900s for the treatment of asthma. These treatments were so popular at one point that companies created special anti-asthma cigarettes. Of course, we know that inhaling any type of smoke, especially for those with asthma, is dangerous for your health.

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Bloodletting for Nausea

Nowadays, if we’re nauseous, we take anti-nausea medications to help relieve the symptoms. Back in the 1800s and early 1900s, doctors used different techniques to help patients get relief. Often called bloodletting, doctors would cut into the skin and drain blood from the patient. That’s right – your doctor would actually cut you and drain some of your blood with the belief that draining your blood would rid your body of the disease or illness you had. Doctors mainly prescribed it for morning sickness and nausea but also for other types of conditions. It seems like it was somewhat of a guessing game for your doctor. Bloodletting goes back thousands of years as people thought it would calm the pain, regulate your pulse, and even rid the body of a fever.


Cold Water for Insomnia

During Victorian times, doctors believed a variety of treatments would work for things like insomnia. Nowadays, we take supplements or sleeping pills to help in severe cases. But this wasn’t always the case for historical peoples suffering from insomnia. Doctors believed cold douches would help patients suffering from insomnia. The patient would be blasted with cold water to help relieve insomnia, improve circulation, fight infections, and even relieve headaches. This seems like an aggressive form of hydrotherapy that would make you more awake and irritated rather than sleepy. The Merck Manual also recommended coffee and alcohol for insomnia. Hydrotherapy can be beneficial for some illnesses but not sleeping issues…


Belladonna for Colic

Belladonna was often used to treat colic in babies during the Victorian era. It is a toxic herb that affects the nervous system. Colic is an intense and frequent crying and fussiness in babies. Doctors during Victorian times believed that giving babies a small amount of belladonna would reduce the crying and fussing fits. Prescribing a baby belladonna is distressing because it can cause problems with urination, digestive functions, increased heart rate, and more. Ingesting belladonna is dangerous and can increase your blood pressure. While belladonna is used today in the drops used to dilate our eyes, it is perfectly safe for use in those situations. The FDA has gone on record as saying there is no safe dose of belladonna for children.

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Leeches for Ear Infections

It may sound absolutely revolting, but doctors once used leeches for a variety of ailments, including ear aches and infections. Leeches are a type of blood-sucking parasite. Leeches attach to the skin and suck your blood by using sharp suckers located on each end of the worm. Surprisingly, healthcare has used leeches for hundreds of years for their ability to numb pain, have blood clot prevention capabilities, and drain infections. Doctors during the Victorian era believed leeches could help fix the condition associated with ear infections. Now, there may be proof that they actually work. Modern medicine has looked at these squirmy worms and found they can help wounds heal with their anti-blood clotting capabilities.

Cocaine for Alcoholism

Cocaine is a powerfully addictive stimulant made from the coco plant leaves in South America. It’s one of the more dangerous drugs out there. So it is odd that it’s been used in medicine. Well-noted psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud, helped to make cocaine a popular treatment for alcoholism in the 1880s by calling it a magical drug. It had a variety of uses back then, including treatment for morphine addiction, depression, fatigue, migraines, and even anxiety. Cocaine was once an ingredient in one of our most beloved soft drinks like Coca-Cola! Doctors had it readily available as an over-the-counter tonic, wine, soft drink, and powder. Doctors believed the cocaine would energize patients, making their symptoms lessen as time went on.

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Bad Air During Surgery

If you needed surgery in the late 1800s or early 1900s, there was a very high risk of death. Doctors at the time didn’t understand the importance of using clean tools or keeping a surgical area clean between surgeries. Surgeons in the late 1800s took pride in their blood-stained clothing after surgeries. There was no worry about infections. Illnesses ran rampant if you survived the surgery. It was common for people to die from having surgery only to be killed by an infection afterwards. Doctors were so misinformed that they believed something like ‘bad air’ could cause diseases, not their soiled clothing or medical tools. It was a dangerous time to go through something that required surgery. Surgical techniques were a guessing game. There was no guarantee of survival like we have today. Simple procedures like removing the appendix could cause a patient’s death.


Morphine for a Child’s Cough

When your children get sick, it makes you feel horrible, and you want to do anything in your power to make them feel better. Nowadays, the best treatment for children includes antibiotics to help flush their systems of illness and kill off the bacteria causing concern. Have you ever wondered what doctors would use to treat coughs in children back in Victorian times? They actually used Morphine to treat a child’s cough. Morphine is a very strong opiate found naturally in opium, which is likely what doctors gave children during Victorian times. Doctors believed this potent opiate could stop the coughing and make the child healthy again. Morphine has a high potential for abuse, making it one of the most dangerous drugs available legally.


Bananas for Fever

When you hear the word plantain, you probably think of the large bananas. However, we’re talking about the broadleaf plantain herb in this case. During Victorian times, doctors used the Broadleaf Plantain to treat hay fever and allergies. The Broadleaf Plantain is native to Eurasia. People believed drinking the herb as a tea would help alleviate the symptoms of allergies or hay fever. Now, we’ll probably never know if it actually helped, but herbalists believe there was a chance it did. They thought the plantain herb would soothe coughing fits as well, making it a good choice at the time compared to other forms of medication or treatment.

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Plaster for Pain

In the 19th century Great Britain, doctors used plasters to draw badness out of the body. Plasters are basically band-aids. While it is a plaster in the UK, we call it a band-aid here in the USA and Australia. Plaster had leather and contained traces of opium, wax, lead, and frankincense. They designed the plasters for various body parts and distributed them to the public to help draw out their pain. People believed these plasters could draw out any illness if worn in a specific area that was painful or worrisome. They would wear the plaster for as long as possible to eliminate the disease.


Phenacetin for Sickness

Doctors used various medications in the late 1800s and early 1900s to help relieve pain. One of these was phenacetin. They mainly used phenacetin for fevers during that time. You won’t find it in production because researchers deemed it dangerous for your health. Doctors in the 1970s found that phenacetin contributed to kidney disease. So it was taken off the shelves and replaced with safer alternatives. While many of the drugs we take daily have side effects that can be considered dangerous, this one just didn’t make the cut.

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Willowbark for Fevers

While we already discussed one medication used for fevers during Victorian times, there are more. Clearly, these guys had no idea what to do with a fever. Doctors would utilize willow bark and meadowsweet for fevers as well. The willow tree has 400 different species. These medications are plants with medicinal qualities. Meadowsweet is from an herb plant, while willowbark is from the willow tree. Willowbark contains a chemical that helps to reduce fever. People have used these two plants for centuries for their ability to help reduce pain and fever. While this isn’t one of the craziest things on our list, it’s worth mentioning. Nowadays, we can stick to Tylenol and ibuprofen for aches, pains, and fevers.

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Camphor For Itchy Skin

Nowadays, if we get itchy, we use Benadryl or creams to help alleviate the itching. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, they would use camphor. Camphor is a chemical found in the camphor tree from Southeast Asia. Doctors would distill the bark and create oil from the remnants to put on the skin. The United States banned this substance for its addictive qualities. While they found that camphor actually works, it isn’t the safest thing to use for something like itching. Doctors now believe camphor is a neurotoxin that can cause nausea and diarrhea. Breathing in a small amount of camphor can cause wheezing and coughing fits. It’s much safer to use something like Benadryl or creams that alleviate itching.


Mercury for Syphilis

Mercury is a dangerous substance you’ve probably seen used in older-style thermometers, but can you believe doctors used it to treat syphilis and other venereal diseases? That’s right. Mercury was used in the late 1800s and early 1900s to treat syphilis. Since mercury is a diuretic, doctors believed they could expel the disease from your body when you ingested it. It seems extremely dangerous to us. Can you believe it was used for over 450 years to treat this? Mercury is the only metal on Earth that is a liquid at room temperature. Once antibiotics appeared, mercury became obsolete, and doctors stopped using it. Medicine has really come a long way since the early 1900s!

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Chlorine for Typhoid

It seems like a silly question to ask. Who in their right mind would use disinfectants for medications, right? Well, in the early 1900s, they did just that. Disinfectants like chlorine, carbolic, sulfur, lime, and charcoal were all used to treat certain conditions. Chlorine was first used to treat a water main during a typhoid epidemic. They put it into the water, thinking it could kill the disease. Plus, they added lime to water with the idea of treating illnesses. Lime is nontoxic, but it seems crazy to use it for that specific purpose. As far as sulfur goes, it was used in the rooms of the sick and infected to help cleanse the area of sickness.

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Phrenology for Mental Health

Mental Health treatment was kind of hit or miss in the early 1900s. Doctors believed in the power of Phrenology. Phrenology involves feeling the skull to measure bumps and dips that showcase mental traits. Bumps in certain areas would indicate traits such as aggression or sadness. Doctors used this highly irregular method until the 20th century when they finally deemed it no longer usable for the study of mental health. So, if you had bumps in certain areas of your skull, doctors would treat you accordingly, even if you weren’t showcasing symptoms of said bump. If you ask us, it seems like a messy way to diagnose mental illness. Nowadays, doctors treat mental health with a variety of medications and therapies.

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Hot Irons for Cauterizing

Back in the early days of surgery, it was touch and go as far as the knowledge needed to perform surgeries to save lives. Doctors didn’t know how to stop bleeding in patients, so they used hot irons to cauterize the wounds. This seems like a crazy way to stop bleeding, and it also seems dangerous. They had no anesthesia to keep patients asleep throughout the surgery, so they likely felt everything was happening. It sounds terrifying! Using a hot iron is not only unsanitary, but it could also damage the nerves in your body, especially if it is a large iron that takes up more space than necessary. This makes us glad to be alive today with our medical advancements!

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Treating Only Symptoms = Shorter Life Span

Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, doctors relied on treating symptoms, not the cause of illnesses. Doctors did not widely understand medicine at the time, and each doctor had different training, so it was up to your individual doctor to decide how to treat your particular illness. If your symptoms included diarrhea or constipation, your doctor would treat the symptoms, such as an achy stomach. Medicine has come a long way since the early days. While only treating the symptoms, many patients would come down with other illnesses, only to die before they received proper treatment. This is why the average life expectancy was only 40 years of age. Many of the remedies for treating the ill back in the early 1900s are now illegal.

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Cleanliness In Hospitals and At Home

Cleanliness wasn’t next to godliness back in the late 1800s and early 1900s when it came to medical tools, offices, and even homes. Doctors wouldn’t wash medical equipment like saws, scalpels, bedding, and gowns between patients. While medicine wasn’t widely understood, these doctors just did what they could to treat patients’ symptoms. Often, patients would meet with their doctor only to leave with another type of illness from improperly cleaned medical tools. Hygiene wasn’t as important as today, either, or people would go weeks without a bath. We bet it makes you glad you live today with all of our proper amenities!

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The Dangers of Surgery

Surgery was dangerous during Victorian times, but not for the reasons you might think. The danger was in the fact that everything was dirty. While a lot of patients passed away on the operating table, some survived, only to die later at home from infection. Doctors didn’t believe in cleanliness back then. Operating rooms would be used repeatedly for different patients without being cleaned. Surgical tools were often left bloody. One of the top priorities at the time was keeping the patient alive when it should have included things to keep them healthy, like cleaning surgical instruments. When a patient would come back to see the doctor with a pus-filled wound, the doctor would believe the wound was healing instead of becoming more infected. It was a dangerous time to be alive! Cleanliness during surgery didn’t become a priority until the early 1900s.

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

Bloody hands, dirty knives: The horrors of Victorian medicine | AAMC

10 Dubious Victorian Cures From the First Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy | Mental Floss

Victorian Medicine – Simple History

What Medicines Were Used in the 1800s?

Health & Medicine in the 19th Century – Victoria and Albert Museum

Gruesome and Shocking Facts About Victorian Surgery