For about as long as there has been people, there have been men and women working to keep us healthy and, more importantly, alive. While truly ancient medicine is equal parts useful herbs and horrifying poisons, it actually didn’t get much better until only recently. Until Louis Pasteur and others successfully demonstrated that bacteria caused disease in the 1850s, the dominant belief for hundreds of years was that air could “go bad” and that this caused pretty much all illness. In fact, malaria, now known to be a parasite, is actually Latin for “bad air.”
By no means were any doctors before this stupid. In fact, working with the tools and knowledge they had, they were able to do tremendous things. And with each successive advance, we got closer and closer to the modern day, where many diseases have been all but eradicated, and treatments exist for thousands of conditions that previously would have meant a death sentence. Still, it’s absolutely fascinating to look back and see what the most advanced medical technology was like in the past. Some of it is simply bizarre. Some of it isn’t so different at all to what we have now.
1. Patients wrapped in ice-cold wet bankets for “hydrotherapy” at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, an asylum.
2. A 19th Century leech jar. So in demand were leeches that ornate jars like this could be found in pharmacies everywhere, with the day’s fresh batch of bloodsuckers.
3. Radiology safety gear circa WWI. While many people were still disregarding the dangers of radiation, protection did exist.
4. “Sunlight” therapy, for babies. This was essentially baby tanning. It helped treat and prevent rickets, but nowadays we just get our vitamin D from milk or supplements.
5. This treatment for scoliosis isn’t a terrible idea in theory, but we’d say the modern plastic braces are a bit less ostentatious.
6. This defibrillator is literally the first of its kind. The only real difference between it and modern ones is that modern ones have made the process much more automated, making it safer for the patient.
7. We’re not sure why these heat lamp boxes died out. It’s like a sauna that fits almost anywhere!
8. Dr. Crawford Long demonstrating how he uses ether to perform “painless” amputations. A lot better than biting down on a belt, at any rate.
9. It looks almost like a religious icon, but this tiny anatomical doll was used by doctors in 17th Century Germany to advertise their knowledge of female medicine. The expense of ivory combined with the subject matter was fairly similar to hanging a diploma on the wall.
10. Speaking of female medicine, this birthing chair from a hundred years later might seem pretty crazy now, but similar “birthing stools” have become popular in recent years.
11. The layout might seem a little odd, but those wheels are immediately recognizable and hardly different from a modern wheelchair.
12. Let’s talk a minute about quackery. At the same time Marie Curie was cautioning people not to abuse radiation, less scrupulous “doctors” were selling radioactive water as a cure-all.
13. One thing that’s truly come a long way, even in the past few years, is prosthetics.
14. The creators of these wood and metal limbs were dedicated and meant well, and probably improved the quality of life of many people. But nobody would want to strap one of these on in favor of a modern prosthetic.
15. For the younger generations, it’s hard to imagine what a scourge polio was. If there ever was a poster for vaccination, it’s this picture here.
16. Also touted for probably more than it could do, heroin actually was a pretty solid breakthrough in pain relief and is actually still commonly used in UK hospitals, even for labor pain. Yes, really.
17. Cocaine was even more ubiquitous. From children’s toothache drops to Vin Mariani, a cocaine-laced wine endorsed by Queen Victoria, two Popes, Thomas Edison and Ulysses S. Grant, it was only after it became the drug of choice for employees seeking to get more productivity out of their laborers that people began to criticize it and eventually seek to ban it.