Kill or Cure? Medicine over the ages

Kill or Cure? Medicine over the ages

Next time you turn up at the doctor’s for a minor headache, would you like a hole drilled in your skull? For a slight cough, would you sit in a bath in which new-born puppies have been boiled? For the man whose virility is fading, would you go for the billy-goat gland option? All kinds of bizarre medical treatments were common throughout history – not only in ancient times and the Middle Ages, but even into the last century.

From the Dark Ages and into the Second Millennium, almost anything went in medicine. If you were ill, a typical consultation with a physician could be a dicey affair. In fact, it might not even be with a physician, but a herbalist, midwife, occultist, apothecary, con-man or woman, even a part-time witch or wizard.

There were almost no properly organized medical faculties or recognized qualifications. Even if a practitioner did have a certificate, it could be a home-made forgery, and in any case, ordinary people could not read or write. Doctors had no instruction to follow up patients and see if their treatments had worked so if the patient did not return, it was assumed they got better, when in reality 99% had probably died. Pain, suffering and death were a way of life.


The earliest serious surgery was trepanning – scraping, chiselling or drilling holes through the scalp and skull bone into the brain. This first started in the Stone Age with skulls over 15,000 years old showing holes chipped by sharp-edged flint knives and small axes.

Another method was using a wooden bow drill; the “surgeon” wound a leather thong around the drill shaft and moved the bow with a sawing motion to spin the drill bit. Amazingly despite no serious anesthetics or antibiotics, we know that some patients lived through this procedure. But why make holes into someone’s brain? Usually to release evil spirits from a “possessed” patient, who would then keep the removed piece of bone as a talisman to prevent the spirits from returning. We interpret this today as severe migraine, epileptic seizures, intense depression and severe bipolar disorder or internal bleeding.

Hot and flushed?

Blood-letting was popular, even fashionable for more than 2,000 years. With no knowledge of the circulation, people believed blood was made in the liver and consumed in the tissues. If this went wrong, blood collected and caused illness, so blood-letting was the obvious answer. Medieval medics had complicated sets of instructions for bleeding – artery or vein, where on the body, size of cut, what kind of knife or blood-sucking leech to use and how long to flow were all important considerations.

Unwanted hair?

Try a recipe from the 10th-century Bald’s Leechbook, an indispensable aid for the Dark Ages doctor. It states: “if hair be too thick, take a swallow, burn it to ashes under a tile and have the ashes shed on [the affected area].” Perhaps trickiest was the earliest, unsaid bit – how to catch the bird in the first place.

Cough and chills?

Johannes de Mirfield, a respected 14th-Century physician at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London, recommended this medicinal bath: “Take blind [new-born] puppies, gut them, and cut off the feet; then boil in water, and in this water let the patient bathe … For four hours after he has eaten, and while in the bath, he should keep his head covered, and his chest completely swathed with the skin of a goat, so he does not catch a sudden chill.”

Wheezy, tight chest, breathing problems?

The true nature of asthma was not recognized until the mid-20th century. Before that you could try a mix of powdered bones from a human and a pig, scraped sweat from both too, stirred with mixed blood from a range of farmyard beasts like sheep and goats. Boil up, leave for precisely four hours, then drink a flagon (2 pints) in less than 30 seconds.


The old belief was that a “tooth worm” burrowed through the gums and teeth, causing decay and pain. The remedy was to catch it when it first caused trouble in a formerly healthy tooth, so you were plied with alcohol or similar pain-numbing substances. Then the “dentist” hit each of your teeth, and the one which caused the least agony was the one with the worm. It was wrenched out with tongs or chiselled out by the carpenter – thus removing probably the last healthy tooth in your head.

Touch of gout?

Try plastering onto the affected joint a mash-up of herbs, earthworms, uncleaned hair from the nether regions of a female dog on heat, and cracked bones plus marrow and dung from a cow or goat. Anything was worth trying for this phenomenally painful problem. Sadly not a lot worked.

Problems with ‘male virility’?

Try a testicle transplant: slit the sack, whip out the old, dull ones and sew in a shiny, new, potent pair – from a goat. This may sound like a bizarre Dark Ages procedure, but incredibly hundreds of such operations were carried out in 1920s America by “Dr” John Brinkley, who moved to Hollywood and carried out goat-gland operations for the rich and famous. He got away with it for years by a combination of his showbiz persona, rabble-rousing speeches, lying on his qualifications, keeping on the move, and using “The doctor is out” sign for irate, even dying patients. But by the late 1930s Brinkley faced lawsuits for over $3 million, and various charges from wrongful death to murder. He fell ill and died penniless.


Kill or Cure, An Illustrated History of Medicine by Steve Parker, is out now, published by DK.