10 Disease Theories That Were Spectacularly Wrong
10 Disease Theories That Were Spectacularly Wrong
Health 10 Disease Theories That Were Spectacularly Wrong James Fenner November 7, 2018

John Dewey once said, "every great advance in science has issued from a new imagination." The Moon landing, antibiotics, and put a computer in every home are all related to the audacity of imagination.

Modern medicine has improved in recent times, and our understanding of pathology has never been better. History shows that many mistakes are made in pursuit of scientific achievement.

Some of the most revered thinkers got it wrong when it came to disease. You might expect such theories to lead to strange treatments. Scientists throughout the ages have offered a variety of therapies.

The legitimacy of current theories can be questioned if you know more about the history of medicine. What other things have we gotten wrong? What more can we discover? Time will tell.

10 Female Hysteria

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Scientists used pseudoscience to correct hysteria in women. The theory is from ancient Egypt. The position of the uterus was thought to be the cause of hysteria.

The Latin word hystericus means of the womb. The vagina was often placed near the smell to correct the problem. The womb was thought to be repelled by different fragrances by Aretaeus. The scent of the substance was dependent on the uterus.

The medical profession had a strange understanding of hysteria. The virgins of Argo were said to have been rid of by the priest Melampus. The daughters of King Proetus were hallucinating. The women were told to make love to men with the roots of the flower hellebore.

The idea of a holy uterus came to pass. Plato and Hippocrates believed that the female uterus had its own moods. Sex and reproduction were thought to make the uterus sad. Hippocrates argued that an unhappy uterus was caused by a lot of poisonous humors. The humors migrated to other parts of the body. From ancient Rome onward, there were similar theories.

The invention of the vibrator was the result of theories surrounding hysteria. Doctors were tasked with persuading women into a state of normality in the 19th century. Doctors were bored with giving manual hand jobs so they passed the responsibility on to midwives. Other scholars disagree with Maines.

The electromechanical vibrator was invented to massage muscles. It was decided by medical doctors that it would be quicker to use the device to give women orgasms. Treatment times were reduced from an hour to 10 minutes.

9 Trepanning And Evil Spirits

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Today, the practice of drilling a hole in one’s head to treat mental health problems is a tough sell. But that was not always the case. From Neolithic times to ancient Greece, numerous civilizations used a procedure called trepanation to combat disease. Trepanation involves making a hole in the human skull to remedy some perceived ailment.

The primitive tribes used trepanation to rid themselves of evil spirits. The symptoms were probably caused by mental illness. Skull fragments from the operation were sought after. The shamans would make amulets from the fragments to protect them from demonic possession.

The procedure was slightly improved by warring tribes of South America. They used trepanation to treat traumatic head injuries. Modern surgeons use a refined form of trepanation. Maybe there was a method to their madness.

Even now, a few brave souls use trepanning techniques to alter the flow of blood and cerebrospinal fluid in their heads. (N.B.: Do not try this at home unless you enjoyed the ending to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.)

Amanda Feilding, founder of the Beckley Foundation, performed self-trepanation in the early 1970s. She believes that “stagnant pools” of toxins contribute to diseases like Alzheimer’s. Feilding ran for parliament in the UK twice on a platform of providing “Trepanation for the National Health.” She received few votes.[2]

8 The Elixir Of Life

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They say death and taxes are certain in life. The elites of ancient China were obsessed with avoiding the former. They put their faith in the power of magic. The very first emperor of unified China ordered his men to find a cure for immortality.

The emperor was given the elixir: mercury. Mercury only brings about the recipient's demise. The emperor is thought to have been poisoned by consuming an excessive amount of mercury sulfide. He died at the age of 49. Despite the obvious failure, the alchemists continued their work. Many of them died of old age.

Before his passing, Qin Shi Huang ordered the creation of his Terracotta Army. These inanimate warriors were placed in the emperor’s enormous burial chamber to protect him in the afterlife. Ironically, archaeologists think Qin Shi Huang’s tomb is surrounded by a river of mercury.

Qin Shi Huang was not the only emperor to succumb to the temptation of quicksilver. Emperor Xuanzong of Tang was given an elixir derived from a mercury ore (cinnabar). He developed classic symptoms of mercury poisoning, including itching, muscle weakness, and paranoia.

The alchemists argued that these symptoms were a mere blip on the road to immortality. Of course, the emperor died shortly after. A number of Xuanzong’s predecessors died taking similar elixirs, including emperors Muzong and Wuzong. Emperor Muzong suspected something was up, so he made his alchemists consume their own poisonous concoctions. Muzong’s wisdom did not last long. He, too, became obsessed with elixirs and poisoned himself.

7 Miasma Theory

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The miasma theory was proposed to explain the spread of disease. Scientists thought that the primary cause of disease was atmospheric impurities. The plague doctors were examples of this theory in action. These frightening characters wore masks that were shaped like beaks. The masks were made with aromatic herbs.

In Victorian England, Edwin Chadwick put forward the miasma theory to explain London’s cholera epidemics. Meanwhile, Florence Nightingale argued that outbreaks of measles, smallpox, and scarlet fever were caused by building houses too close to smelly drains.

An anesthetist called John Snow refuted the miasma theory. Snow said that cholera was transmitted via polluted water, not bad air. This was a controversial hypothesis for the time.[4]

Snow observed that certain parts of London were more likely to experience cholera outbreaks than others. He realized that some of the local water companies filtered and purified their water, while others did not. All the companies took their water from the Thames—a swirling cesspit of refuse, effluent, and general despair. (Some things never change.)

Regions with high levels of cholera often received unpurified water from especially dirty parts of the Thames. Snow also discovered a link between the spread of waterborne diseases and the city’s inadequate sewage system. One major outbreak was caused by a cholera-riddled diaper that had been dumped in a leaky cesspit. The disease took hold when water from the cesspit contaminated a nearby water pump.

In 1861, Louis Pasteur’s germ theory proved that Snow was correct. The discovery of the bacterium Vibrio cholerae was the final piece of the puzzle. The miasma theory, which dated back to the time of Hippocrates, was finally put out to pasture.

6 Tooth-worm

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There is no joke about dental caries. The Legend of the Tooth-worm existed in Babylonian times. A number of ancient civilizations thought that wriggly worms were to blame for the pain.

There is a theory that a worm would bury itself in a tooth. The sufferers were inflicted with great pain. The pain wouldn't go away until the worm tired and stopped beating. The creature was thought to be a demon taking on a worm.

Treatments for tooth-worm were popular. The physician to the Roman emperor performed fumigations with henbane seeds. The fumes would repulse the pest. Patients were tricked into thinking they had tooth-worm during the 17th century. The practitioners were only pretending to extract worms. They were simply removing pieces of string.

Pliny the Elder is a Roman philosopher. The cure for toothache was to catch a frog by the moon and spit it in its mouth.

In 1728, Pierre Fauchard published a two-volume book, The Surgical Dentist. Described as the “father of modern dentistry,” Fauchard debunked the theory of tooth-worm and recommended that patients reduce their sugar intake.

5 Ulcers And Stress

Until recently, practitioners and researchers were united in their belief that ulcers were caused by stress and excess stomach acid. Scientists who were skeptical of this entrenched theory were the subject of ridicule.

Barry Marshall made a point in 1984. The Australian gastroenterologist believed that the cause of the ulcers was Helicobacter pylori. He started experimenting on himself because he was so convinced.

Marshall drank the delicious H. pylori soup that his colleague cooked up. Marshall was diagnosed with acute gastritis. He took a course of antibiotics. The theory behind stress-inducing wounds was starting to fall apart.

However, Marshall and his colleagues faced considerable pushback from the medical-industrial complex. A number of big drug companies were worried that antibiotics would make their products redundant. “Because the makers of H2 blockers funded much of the ulcer research at the time, all they had to do was ignore the Helicobacter discovery,” explained Marshall.

For the longest time, the idea that bacteria could survive in such an acidic environment was laughable. But scientists soon discovered that Helicobacter could effectively neutralize the acid around it.

Researchers now think that 80 percent of gastric ulcers are caused by the bacterium. Barry Marshall and colleague Robin Warren won a Nobel Prize for proving their peers totally wrong.

4 Corpse Medicine

Photo credit: Jean-Leon Gerome.

The practice of corpse medicine was once used to treat illness. The part of the body that was consumed was dependent on the ailment. The homeopaths said it was like cures. Bit of skull and superficial wounds were wrapped in fat-soaked bandages.

Europe’s rich and famous were pigging out on human bodies during the 16th and 17th centuries. The continent was rife with cannibalistic gravediggers looking for a quick buck. Egyptian tombs were looted of their mummified inhabitants and used to treat bruises and bleeds.

Even royalty was at it. England’s King Charles II was partial to a little alcohol and ground skull (aka “The King’s Drops”). The king would tootle off to his own laboratory and brew up a batch himself.[7]

In the 19th century, corpse medicine was practiced in the country. Many spectators brought their own cups to watch the executions.

Hans Christian Andersen said he witnessed a man feed the blood of an executed felon to a child. The blood was used to treat a condition. The Middle Ages referred to blood as the "elixir of life" and virgin blood was used to cure leprosy.

The ancient Rome was the site of this medical vampirism. Human blood was thought to carry the soul. They believed that drinking blood could save lives. The Romans drank the blood of gladiators killed in the arena because of a mystical belief.

3 The Four Humors

Knowledge of anatomy and medicine soared under the physicians of ancient Greece. Dissections and vivisections provided doctors with fresh insight into the body’s inner workings.

Galen found that the brain controlled movement via nerves. Herophilus distinguished between veins and arteries. A number of prominent philosophers drew a connection between disease and the environment. And a biological trigger of disease replaced the supernatural. However, one deeply flawed theory went uncontested: the four humors.

Hippocrates influenced ancient Greek medicine. The body was made up of four fluids, according to his theory. An unbalanced humors would lead to disease. The four humors were associated with a person's mental state. If a patient had too much black bile, he was melancholic.

But where did the idea of these humors come from?

Well, the ancient Greeks were likely pouring blood samples into glass containers and leaving them to coagulate. After some time, this sample would separate into four distinct layers: red, white, black, and yellow. This is perhaps what they thought of as humors.

However, the Greeks may have taken inspiration from the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. It was also widely accepted that these humors were somehow connected to the four seasons and planetary alignment.

Changes to diet and lifestyle were often recommended to redress the balance. The Greek physician Galen was a proponent of bloodletting to get rid of excess blood—what he considered to be the dominant humor.

Bloodletting continued under the barber-surgeons of medieval Europe who thought the practice could cure smallpox and epilepsy. Humoralism persisted throughout the West for thousands of years. Historians suspect that George Washington’s faith in bloodletting may have contributed to his demise in 1799.

2 Urine Therapy

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urine therapy is used to combat disease. Those in support of the practice think it's healing. There are books written about the elixir of life, the golden fountain, and liquid gold. While most qualified doctors view urine as a waste product, urine connoisseurs claim that the liquid is a distilled product of the blood.

Throughout history, urine has been used frequently. The surgeon for Henry VIII advised to clean battle wounds with urine. The patients were told to drink a moderate amount of their own urine in the morning. George Thomson recommended that urine be used to fight the bacterium that caused the Great Plague.

A quick perusal of the Internet reveals that urine therapy is something people still do today. Hundreds of thousands of people in China are said to drink urine. A surprising number of athletes have also resorted to guzzling down their own juices, including MMA fighter Luke Cummo and boxer Juan Manuel Marquez.

Madonna famously told David Letterman that urine was a cure for athlete’s foot. Some desperate teens have taken to slapping urine on their pustulous faces, while others are brewing up their own urine-based teeth whiteners.

There is little research on many types of urine therapy. Doctors say drinking pee is not a good idea. The practice can lead to dehydration. It's a bad idea to clean your wounds with urine. It was thought that urine was sterile, but new research shows otherwise.

1 Powder Of Sympathy

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Sir Kenelm Digby was a man of science, philosophy, and reason. But, like many of his 17th-century contemporaries, Digby had a keen interest in alchemy and astrology. The Englishman came up with the strange notion that applying treatments to the weapon that caused an injury would heal the wound itself.

The cure was called thepowder of sympathy. The University of Montpellier has top academics. The speech boasted of endorsements from King James.

After experimenting on his friend,Digby believed in the treatment. The writer tried to stop the duel. The powder of sympathy was tested on the bandage.

The bandage was then removed and kept separate from the wound. The treatment reportedly gave Howell “a pleasing sense of freshnesse” and a new lease on life. However, today’s scientists know better. His recovery was likely the result of good fortune and the placebo effect.

According to Digby, a Carmelite monk taught him the weapon salve. The potion was supposed to work on the basis of “sympathetic magic.” Proponents argued that a weapon would form some kind of connection to the human body after drawing blood. Digby and his colleagues believed that atoms of the lotion were attracted to the wound via some form of magnetism.

The powder of sympathy garnered considerable attention. There were 29 editions of Digby’s book, A Late Discourse . . . Touching the Cure of Wounds by the Powder of Sympathy. The potion was sold in many apothecaries throughout 17th-century Europe. Even the likes of John Locke and Thomas Sydenham lauded the bizarre treatment.

Digby’s love for the supernatural did not end there. He also had a keen interest in palingenesis, a form of “biological rebirth.” He hoped that the technique would resurrect life from the crystallized ashes of plants and animals.

Some scholars suggested that Digby’s attempts at resurrection were related to an obsession he had with his dead wife, Venetia. Rumor circulated that Digby had accidentally killed Venetia by giving her large quantities of “viper wine.”


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