The annals of medical history are filled with some bizarre treatments. They range from the infamous, like leeches and bloodletting, to the obscure. Here, four of the most shocking medical procedures you’ve probably never heard of:
Long before it was a violation of United Nations convention against torture — in fact, long before the UN even existed — there was a wet form of shock therapy for mental health disorders. Hospitals used hydrotherapy, or the “water cure,” throughout the 1800s and early 1900s. With the simplest version, hospital personnel held patients underwater until they lost consciousness, after which they were considered cured of their madness, provided they could be revived. Other forms of the treatment consisted of dunking or showering reclining patients without warning. It isn’t clear how nearly (or completely) drowning was supposed to help, but back in the day it was all the rage among the anti-insanity set.
What was a poor guy to do in the 1920s when things went awry down below and no one had invented Viagra yet? Easy. If the dude could afford it, he hopped a ship to Paris to see Dr. Serge Voronoff. The doctor would happily replace the man’s testicles with those of a monkey, promising that this treatment would get things humming again. Few of his patients objected to toting around animal gonads. For one thing, they were told that their new testicles had come from inmates, not primates. For another, many patients died from the procedure.
You know those videos of cute cats banging away on pianos? Well, this wasn’t that. Instead, several cats were lined up and tied down inside a long box with their tails immobilized and placed through holes near a keyboard. Like a conventional piano, this one had keys that, when pressed, controlled hammers. But with the cat piano (or organ), the hammers were set up to strike the cats’ tails with sharp points, causing them to emit the sounds you’d expect cats to make in that situation. Playing this thing was meant to lift one’s mood, according to German medical scientist Johann Christian Reil (1759–1813), the best-known user of the contraption. And while the cat piano has long fallen out of favor, we are continuing to use Reil’s other invention— the word “psychiatry.”
It made sense: Heat could kill syphilis, and a fever generates heat. So, in order to induce a heat-generating, syphilis-killing fever, all you needed was … malaria. Austrian doctor Julius Wagner-Jauregg came up with this one, hoping to end the psychosis and cognitive dysfunction brought on by untreated syphilis. In 1917 he began injecting syphilis-infected patients with malaria. And it worked, too, killing only 15 percent of Wagner-Jauregg’s patients and winning him a Nobel Prize in 1927. Nowadays, however, we’re better at diagnosing syphilis sooner, and we can treat it with a shot of penicillin, thereby eliminating the need to cure one disease with another one.