Medical history is filled with stories of inspiration and wonder, but it also has a dark side.
The medical field has come along way over the last hundred years or so, and the understanding of what causes various abnormalities has advanced. At the time, such conditions were a spectacle. The documentation of them is now among the creepiest images in medical history. Other images come from past medical practices that are downright weird.
Here are the top 15 images that made us glad we were born in modern times!
15.) Iron Lungs
The device you’re looking at is called an iron lung or a pulmotor. Now obsolete, this machine was a mechanical respirator that helped polio patients breathe on their own.
The first time the iron lung was used on a person was in 1928. An 8-year-old girl was nearly dead after a polio-induced respiratory failure, only to be saved by the machine within less than a minute of being placed in the chamber. This dramatic recovery helped spread the new device’s popularity and use.
14.) Foot Binding
In the 10th century in China, nobility considered feet as small as four inches (10 cm) as the epitome of grace and feminity.
As big feet were considered crude, young girls would have their feet tightly bound to modify their size and shape. Not only was this operation extremely painful, but it would also result in the women having life-long disabilities and trouble walking. People referred to bound feet as “lotus feet.”
This practice then became a common practice in all social classes of China at the time.
If you feel awkward every time your ophthalmologist comes near your eye, this one will send shivers down your spine.
For many years, lobotomy was a common practice to treat all sorts of diseases. It was used for bipolar disorder, manic depression, schizophrenia, and even misbehaving children! The procedure involved inserting “10-inch ice picks” into the brain to sever the connections between the prefrontal lobe of the brain.
12.) Tapeworm Diet
Ever heard of the tapeworm diet? You may be disgusted now (and rightfully so), but this practice was considered to be an effective medical treatment.
Basically, the poster claims that you can eat as much as you want and never get fat. How? By swallowing tapeworm eggs, wait for them to grow inside their gut, then eat the fat away. Not only is it revulsing, but it also is dangerous. The tapeworm could grow to reach 30 feet (9m) in length and cause many illnesses.
11.) Psychic Surgery
Oh, how many people have fallen for this medical fraud!
The US Federal Trade Commission has described Psychic Surgery as a “total fraud,” and you’re about to know why. The practitioner would try to convince unsuspecting victims that they can perform surgery with their bare hands using trickery, fake blood, and animal parts. They would then convince the patient that those were lesions they have removed and healed.
If you know anyone who might be considering giving this practice a shot, warn them that it’s a total and utter lie.
10.) Plastic Surgery
Plastic surgery didn’t start as a trend to fill lips or make celebrities look younger.
Its origins date back to the post-WWI era, where wounded warriors were given a shot at a new face thanks to skin transplants.
Some of the wounded soldiers were so disfigured that they could only work night shifts. These plastic surgeries gave them a new chance to live their lives as regular members of society again.
9.) Cocaine for Coughs
Would you believe it if we told you that doctors gave patients — including kids — cocaine lollipops? They came in a variety of flavors to soothe coughs, headaches, and increase stamina.
This drug was banned after doctors noticed that patients were experiencing severe withdrawal syndromes after taking it. We’re glad they caught up on that in time!
8.) Inversion Traction
You know how we always say that Hippocrates in the father of modern medicine? Though it is true, it doesn’t mean that everything he said was 100% correct.
One of his ideas was the inversion traction, which was used to treat people with spine or joint pain. The operation consisted of tying a person upside down with a rope and stretching them.
7.) Electric Belt
“Miracle cures” were common in the 19th century, and this was one of them. The electric belt delivered electric shock waves to weak parts of the body to treat all types of illnesses and increase vigor.
We can only imagine how painful it must have been for those who tried it.
6.) The Gentleman’s Guide to Amputation
Don’t let this poster fool you: No one would be able to enjoy a glass of brandy after an amputation as brutal as this one.
The Gentleman’s Guide to Amputation downplays how horrible this operation is. With no antiseptic or anesthesia in sight, the man in the document would be screaming his lungs out instead of keeping a straight face.
5.) Trepanation Engraving
This engraving by Peter Treveris appeared in a surgery handbook published in 1525 and portrays the procedure known as trepanation. This surgery involves boring into the patient’s skull with a drill and exposing the membrane that surrounds the brain.
The practice dates back thousands of years. It continued in Europe through the Renaissance as a treatment for seizures and skull fractures. Just looking at the engraving will make you cringe. What would it be like to have a doctor drill into your brain while you are still awake?
4.) Système de Broussais (Bloodletting)
This image shows the archaic practice of bloodletting. Humans used it as a treatment for several illnesses since early civilization. Many ancient physicians believed that diseases were caused by an excess of blood in the body that could be cured by letting some out. This practice continued as far as the latter half of the 19th century until scientists fully discredited it.
The image shows the patient receiving treatment from a nun with his blood pouring all over the place. It is a disturbing reminder of the countless patients who suffered unnecessary medical procedures throughout history. The title refers to a prominent French doctor who was a strong advocate for bloodletting during the early 1800s.
3.) Julia Pastrana
This photograph from the “Image from the History of Medicine” collection will give you the willies. What looks like the body of a werewolf is Julia Pastrana, a woman who died in Moscow during childbirth in 1860. Pastrana had a condition called hypertrichosis, which causes excessive hair growth on parts of the body. Born in Mexico, Pastrana worked for a traveling sideshow where she was billed as “Bear Woman.” Her child, who died shortly after birth, was born with the same condition. Both of their bodies were embalmed and exhibited as medical oddities until the 1970s.
In 1976, the bodies were stolen from a Norwegian exhibitor and later found by police in a trash bin. The child’s body was damaged beyond repair. Pastrana’s thankfully did better. Historians in the University of Oslo placed the body into a storage basement with other anatomical specimens at the university. After ten years of effort, a New York artist got the university to release her remains so Pastrana could have a dignified burial in her native Mexico, which took place in 2013.
2.) Portrait of Joseph Merrick
Known as the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick was born in 1862. His severe deformities left him few options but to find work as an oddity in a London sideshow. Merrick’s face and head are deformed and enlarged in the photograph, as well as his right hand. For decades after his death, researchers sought to diagnose Merrick’s condition.
In the early 2000s, a group of medical researchers gave a theory. They proposed that Merrick suffered from Proteus syndrome, caused by a fetal gene mutation. The mutated gene divided and spread to different parts of his body, causing deformities to grow and develop as he got older.
1.) “A Student’s Dream” by R.R. Robinson (1906)
This photograph is one of the best examples of dissection room photography. This practice was common at medical schools during the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. In the photo, a medical student pretends to sleep on an autopsy table, while a skull, a skeleton, and a couple of half-dissected cadavers surround him.
It may seem incredibly strange for medicals students to enjoy posing with dead bodies for fun. However, it might have provided them with a way to bond with each other and face their mortality. Whatever the reason, the creep factor is through the roof.
Did these shock you? If so, share them with your friends!