You won’t find these positions listed on today’s job boards. Based in superstition, tradition, and very early science, medical careers of previous centuries can be unrecognizable by modern standards of medicine.
Increased scientific knowledge and more rigorous standards for the efficacy and safety of treatments have changed the kinds of jobs found in the field of health care. Here are five we’re glad were put out of business.
1. Leech collector
Well, somebody had to do it: Leeches have been a popular medical tool for about as long as they’ve existed, and those slimy things don’t gather themselves. People in the 19th century with few other options may have found a way to earn a living as freelance leech collectors. To perform this particular function, the collector, usually female, waded into a pond and waited for leeches to attach themselves to her legs. Then she would pluck them off, put them in a container, and sell them to the local doctor. Occupational hazards included infections from whatever microbes the creatures were carrying — and, of course, blood loss.
2. Plague doctor
The name makes these guys sound like the medical forebears of today’s epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists, but mostly they just dressed up like birds. When the bubonic plague hit over 600 years ago, it caused an estimated 100 million deaths around the world, with some victims dying within hours of falling sick. That level of devastation sent people scurrying for help. Enter the plague doctors, whose purpose seems more magical than medical. First there was the outfit — a long, wax-coated canvas robe and leather pants. Wax also coated the gloves, boots, hat, and hood, which were made of leather as well. The masks were intended to protect the wearer from the disease, which at the time was believed to be airborne. The extended part of the mask was filled with scented herbs, since people believed that smelling bad odors caused disease. The plague doctors administered treatments to plague sufferers, often leech- and herb-based, to no avail.
But at least in one sense they were onto something: While the costume looks goofy to modern eyes, it was a precursor of the hazmat suits worn by medical personnel in today’s disease hot zones.
The traditional barber pole design with red stripes dates back to when barber-surgeons would advertise their services by wrapping a bloody bandage around a pole outside.
And they bloodied plenty of bandages. A barber-surgeon in medieval Europe would offer the usual services of cutting your hair, shaving your face, or trimming your beard. But he could also turn his attention away from your shaggy locks and saw off that gangrenous arm that had been bothering you, if necessary. Barber-surgeons also yanked out teeth, removed hangnails, and offered bloodletting and enemas, if needed.
You can’t get that kind of service at Supercuts.
4. Toad doctor
Sometimes when leeches didn’t work, people in the 18th and 19th centuries would try something a little bigger. In those days, toad doctors specialized in placing toads — or toad parts or toad ashes — on ailing patients. Toads were the treatment of choice in particular for a skin disease called scrofula (what we now call lymphadenopathy of the neck), which was often caused by tuberculosis. The toad treatment wasn’t an entirely crazy idea, however. Scientists have since found that toad skin secretes chemicals with proven and potential analgesic, antibiotic, anti-viral, and even anti-cancerous properties.
5. Medicine man
While the term “medicine man” or “medicine woman” is often applied to spiritual healers and leaders of various Native American cultures, there was a more specialized meaning back in the late 1800s to early 1900s. That kind of medicine man would roll into town with potions and elixirs, offering them as cures for the most intractable and aggravating conditions — including insomnia, seizures, arthritis, and even the blues, blahs, and bloats of menstruation.
And because cocaine and heroin — legal and ubiquitous then — were often among the ingredients, the medicine man’s concoctions probably did offer some pain relief or pleasant sensations. The thing is, by the time the effects wore off and you were out of elixir, the medicine man was off to the next town.