5 Insane Medicines of the 19th Century

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In many ways, the medical advances of the 19th Century moved healthcare toward the modern medicine practices we enjoy all over the world today. There were great achievements such as the widespread successful use of anesthetics; sterilization and sanitation were recognized as crucial to safe, healthy operations (and general living); and with advances such as pasteurization, inoculation, and a better understanding of disease and infection, doctors were generally better equipped than ever before to care for their patients.

In other ways, the 19th Century was a crazy Wild West-style frontier where most any treatment was at least briefly accepted as medically viable if someone with a fine enough mustache and enough pomade in their hair shouted that it “Cured all your cureables!” Never mind all the crazy, semi-sadistic devices created to stimulate this or realign that, and never mind the theories abounding about “vapors” or Phrenology or all the rest of that, there’s too much madness to cover if you cast a wide enough net – today, we’re going to focus on 5 medicines that as little as a hundred and some years back, people were really taking. And some of themsound awesome. See if you can pick up on the theme!

5 Chloroform

Chloroform. Chloroform was extensively prescribed for people with respiratory issues (such as asthma – this is in case the cigarettes didn’t work) and, in its own strange way, it could be considered effective because while you are passed out in an induced stupor, you are indeed not bothered by your respiratory affliction. If and when you wake up, though, it’s probably going to be time for A) some coughing fits, or B) MORE CHLOROFORM!

4 Tobacco

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Tobacco. Got asthma? For many years back in the days of large wheeled old time bikes and Daguerreotype-photos of Great Aunt Hilbrack, doctors prescribed people – especially young people – tobacco for their asthmatic conditions. It was generally thought that smoking tobacco without inhaling it would help to soothe the throat, opening up airways so the patient could breathe more easily. Were the doctors right? No. They were not.

3 Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup

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Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup is in the number three spot because it had staying power. This stuff was available for sale from the middle of the 1800s all the way to the end of the 1920s, which is pretty impressive considering it was basically a mix of raw ground opium powder and morphine (oh, and some ammonia!) in a sweet syrup. More “impressive?” It was marketed largely for parents to give to colicky, fitful, or generally unhappy babies. “Hey, baby’s crying got you up all night? Why not give them a spoonful of serious narcotics!” That will indeed do the job; we can’t fault Mrs. Winslow there. But a lot of infants kind of had this little death side effect, so that’s going to cost her some points.

2 Sulfur

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Sulfur – or “sulphur” as it was spelled by the Brits, who were its most ardent devotees, medically speaking – is a chemical element naturally occurring in many forms, necessary for life as a component in amino acids, useful in various manufacturing processes, and totally useless as a cure for respiratory ailments. But that didn’t stop Victorian-era British folk from sniffing away, not to mention drinking and bathing in, sulfurous concoctions left and right. All that “taking the waters” and such you’ll read about in Jane Austen’s novels? Largely the misguided “medicinal” bathing practices of the frail gentry consisted of sitting around in stinky water with a net positive result of nothing.

1 Bayer © Brand Heroin

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Bayer © Brand Heroin. Yes, indeed the same Bayer company that today operates a global empire of medicine manufacture and sales was a bit confused a few score years back (or maybe they had it just right, actually) when they briefly marketed a tincture of heroin as a cough suppressant and for reduction of throat inflammation. Now, heroin of course has no medical value, but we will say this: it probably did make your throat feel better. And a double dose may even take care of those pesky spiders crawling up your arm!

The long story short here, folks, is to generally be glad you are living in the 21st Century, not the 19th. Now yes, we wouldn’t be upset if doctors occasionally prescribed us something totally awesome like coca-leaf tooth ache salve, but we like having the options of things like, say, Ibuprofen and antibiotics, too. And no laudanum, thank you, I like my brain cells where they are.

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