Synopsis: An expert examines how far we’ve come in medicine by focusing on past practices, which lead him to conclude doctors in ancient Greece provided better care than those in the US 150 years ago.

Host: Nancy Benson. Guest: Nathan Belofsky, author, Strange Medicine: A Shocking History of Real Medical Practices Through the Ages.

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Strange Medicine

NANCY BENSON: It’s been said that in order to know where you’re going, you must know where you’ve been. This can be applied to most aspects of life, and medicine is no exception. But you may be shocked to know that the roots of modern medicine lie within some pretty bizarre practices.

NATHAN BELOFSKY: Benjamin Rush was probably the strangest doctor and had some of the strangest practices. And in Revolutionary times, he was probably America’s best known and most respected doctor. He thought that mental illness was basically caused by bad circulation to the brain, so to cure that, he decided that he would hang his patients from the ceiling from ropes and spin them around, sometimes for hours on end. And he thought that would get the circulation going.

BENSON: That’s Nathan Belofsky, author of Strange Medicine: A Shocking History of Real Medical Practices Through the Ages.

BELOFSKY: He thought that shock and pain and horror would abate mental illness. So, what he would do is he would starve his patients. He would beat them. He would stab them with knives. He would do anything to incite horror and shock and revulsion. And he thought that was the sure way to a cure of mental illness.

BENSON: Belofsky’s book covers many similarly astonishing medical procedures from the time of the Ancient Greeks all the way through the 1850’s. He says that although medicine got off to a great start, the progression of it from there was rather slow.

BELOFSKY: What I found is that medicine got off to a pretty nice start with Hippocrates, a truly brilliant man, a very hands-on doctor. But, from there, if anything, it actually got worse and worse, and it culminated in the Age of Heroic Medicine, which is from about 1780 to about 1850, say around the time of President Lincoln. The medicine practiced in the Age of Heroic Medicine was probably worse than the medicine practiced by the Ancient Greeks. It was much more aggressive. Doctors still really had no idea what they were doing. Everything else was getting better and medicine, arguably, I think it’s true, was getting worse.

BESNON: Many of the procedures performed in the past may be a little stomach turning to hear about. But Belofsky says that some of them were just as repugnant to people then, as they are to us now.

BELOFSKY: There was a very famous surgeon in the 1800s, and he was the best-known surgeon in London. And he was a brilliant, excellent surgeon, but back in those days without anesthesia, surgeons had to work really fast to prevent shock and also just to keep the screaming to a minimum. And the doctors would work so fast that they would sometimes accidentally hack off the wrong limb or the fingers of their assistants. And there was one particular operation where one of London’s top doctors, first his patient died from infection, probably wasn’t much he could do about that, but also he lopped off the fingers of his assistant. And during that same operation, he also, in his haste, accidentally slashed the coat of someone who was watching the operation very close by, and that person became so scared he went into shock and actually died. And I did check that out and it seems to be a true story, as unbelievable as it sounds.

BENSON: Doctors back then also followed a much different set of standards that ruled the way they practiced medicine.

BELOFSKY: By I believe it was the 1300s to 1400s, in Europe, doctors by law had to carry horoscopes in their medical bags. The horoscopes would tell them exactly when to do a medical procedure. For example, if they needed to do brain surgery, again, with a fractured skull or something similar to that, they would wait until the moon was in a certain phase, ‘cause it was felt that the gravity from the moon would exert its pressure on the dura mater of the brain, the soft and liquid parts inside the skull, and it might raise the liquid in the brain too much. And if you just had, say, a simple headache or toothache, they’d also have specific times of the month, say April 14th, for that.

BENSON: So with all of the astounding medical methods of the past, were any of them effective?

BELOFSKY: The success rate was virtually zero. And what’s most striking, aside from the bizarre practices themselves, was the doctors’ failure to really look back and see what their success ratio was. They never asked the question, “Is this working?” or “Is this helpful?” They just did it. They never took notes. They never compared. These days we have evidence-based medicine; it’s very sophisticated. But, back then, they wouldn’t even just ask simple questions like, “Is this working?” They would just do it because the guy before them did it or the guy before him did it or Plato did it. There was just no common sense and that was a theme through medicine from the time of Hippocrates until about the 1850s.

BENSON: While the majority of crude procedures did not yield success, Belofsky does admit there were a select few that were successful.

BELOFSKY: The Ancient Greeks had some remarkable procedures. One was trepanation. That’s the procedure where if someone had an injury to their skull, say a skull fracture, the Ancient Greeks would actually use a drill and drill a hole into the skull. The drill would get so hot that they would have a bucket nearby full of cold water to cool it off from the friction. And apparently that technique worked because we found skulls of people who survived that technique, and we can tell from the rings growing in the skull. So, that was a remarkably sophisticated technique.

BENSON But doctors of the past don’t deal with just physical illness; they also treated matters of the heart.

BELOFSKY: Lovesickness was first discovered, if you will, by the Ancient Greeks, in fact, the great Greek doctor Galen. He classified lovesickness as a type of depression or melancholy, and to him the best way to treat melancholy and lovesickness was by opening the hemorrhoids.
By the 1500s, Renaissance doctors were talking about lovesickness. They said that if it got very serious, a person would basically howl like a wolf and die. And they had all sorts of bizarre cures. One of them was lining people with lead shields. Of course, they would take out their blood, many pints at a time. They’d apply what were essentially branding irons to their forehead. They thought that was good for lovesickness. And they had other sorts of bizarre treatments for lovesickness.

BENSON: Regardless of the diseases they were treating, it’s safe to say that the medical field has come a long way from its humble, and rather odd beginnings.

You can find out more about Nathan Belofsky and his book, Strange Medicine: a Shocking History of Real Medical Practices Through the Ages, at For more information about all of our guests, visit
Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Nick Hofstra.
I’m Nancy Benson.

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