Previous: Where did we get the name America? - Big Questions - (Ep. 201)
Next: Misconceptions about Money - mental_floss on YouTube (Ep. 41)



View count:268,891
Last sync:2024-07-20 04:00
A weekly show where knowledge junkies get their fix of trivia-tastic information. This week, John looks at some unusual, old remedies people used to use.
Mental Floss Video on Twitter:

Select Images and Footage provided by Shutterstock:

Store: (enter promo code: "YoutubeFlossers" for 15% off!)

John:  Hi. I'm John Green.  Welcome to my salon, and this is Mental_Floss on YouTube, and did you know that bird poop was once used as a remedy for burns?  In one 17th century manual, the author claims the best way to cure a burn is by mixing groundsel, house leek, goose dung, chicken dung, and boar's grease.  Then you apply it to your burn.  You're good as new.

Anyway, that's the first of many unusual old remedies that I'm going to share with you in this video today.


Another bird related remedy came from the Roman, Pliny the Elder.  He recommended that if you have a hangover, the best way to cure it is by eating two raw owl's eggs, or a deep fried canary.  

The ancient Greeks also swore by the owl egg hangover cure, but they threw in some sheep lungs as well.  

And if you think that's gross, you would not have fit in well in the Old Wild West where rabbit droppings were a common hangover cure.

In the early 1900s, doctors treated people with syphilis by giving them malaria, and then they cured the malaria with quinine.  When syphilis first came to Europe in the 15th century, by the way, it was cured with mercury.  Unsurprisingly, many patients then died of mercury poisoning.  

And mercury wasn't just used as a medicine.  The ancient Chinese used liquid mercury in an attempt to lengthen one's life.  Terrible plan.

In the 1800s, people started using sulfur as a laxative, which is actually quite effective.

In the medieval western Europe, people used skullcap plant seeds as headache cures.  Scholars think this is because the seeds looked like skulls and Christians at the time believed that God created objects to look like their intended usage.  But by the 17th century, the French had taken it a bit more literally and were said to where actual skullcaps made of lead to cure headaches.  Which is a great way to get lead poisoning.

And speaking of poison, in China, arsenic has been a common medicine for over 5000 years, although it's rarely used anymore.  For a time, though, in the West, it was used to treat syphilis, and parasites, and leukemia.  All ineffectively.  

And speaking of the ancient Chinese, they often used ground tiger bones in their medicine for diseases like rheumatism and arthritis.  Now-a-days, this practice is banned and tiger hunting is illegal, but there's still a black market for the product.  

Shifting from horrific to merely gross, people have been partaking in urine therapy for over 5000 years, and many people still believe that washing your face with urine can treat acne.  

After the Europeans brought catnip to the Americas in the 18th century, a few Native American tribes used it to treat colic in children.  And in Elizabethan England, mice were used as remedies for many different afflictions including whooping cough, small pox, and bed-wetting.  Also, they felt that cutting a mouse in half and applying it to a wart would cure the wart.  

To cure erectile dysfunction, the ancient Egyptians would grind crocodile hearts and then apply them to the penis.

Between the 12th and 17th centuries, many Europeans were treated with a cure-all known as Mummy Powder, which is exactly what it sounds like--ground up dead bodies.  They were technically supposed to be actual mummies, but some apothecaries would take whatever body they could get.  

According to a set of treatises published by the Dutch Society of Sciences in the late 18th century, a good way to cure a headache is by getting shocked by electric eels.  

In the 1755 book, Primitive Physic by John Wesley, he writes that the best way to recover from an asthma attack is by eating only boiled carrots for two weeks.  Well, you'll certainly get your Vitamin A, you'll probably lose some weight, you might turn orange.  I don't know.  There are worse fates.  

And there have been far worse suggestions for curing asthma, including cigarettes.  Physicians often recommended smoking medicated cigarettes as a solution to asthma in the 19th and 20th centuries.  

Around that same time, liquid heroin was being widely sold as a cure for substance addiction to morphine.  In fact, it was produced by the company Bayer, as in the Bayer Aspirin Company that we know today. 

There was also something known as LSD therapy in the 1950s and 60s.  Psychologists hoped that it could be a cure for mental illness, and over 40.000 patients went through psychedelic drug therapy before the drugs were banned for medical use.

In the 19th century to cure sprains, people would boil four live frogs until soft, discard the frogs and use the cooking water with butter as an ointment.  I don't know if that's going to make your sprained ankle better, but it sounds delicious.  

An old remedy for a sore throat--to wrap hot bacon around you throat.  Wait!  Did someone say bacon?  Pork chop party fund!

In ancient Greece, sometimes dogs were used in the medical process.  Physicians would have them lick the open wounds of their patients.  

Licorice was used in ancient Rome for stomach, liver, kidney, and bladder disorders.  Modern studies have shown that the root, which is used to make the candy, actually does have medicinal properties.  It might help with atopic dermatitis and neurogenetive disorders, but not, sadly with the plague.  

One way that medieval Europeans tried to cure the plague was by eating a spoonful of crushed emeralds.  Nah, whatever.  Just made for fancier mummy powder down the line.

Anyway, many Native American tribes used tobacco as a medicine for centuries.  It was supposed to treat many disorders, including rheumatism, colds, and intestinal problems.  

Fire cupping is a practice that has been done in Chine since probably around 1000 BCE to cure things like bronchitis and colds.  Cups are used to create suction on the skin, and the cups are heated up with fire.

In 20th century Norfolk, it wasn't unusual for people to keep potatoes in their pockets to prevent rheumatism, and other European cultures, sometimes used rotten apples to relieve the symptoms of rheumatism. 

In the South Pacific islands, the kava plant has been used for centuries to treat everything from gout to gonorrhea.  And after studies showed a link between kava and liver damage, the EU, along with several other countries, banned it.  Other studies later indicated that those liver damage studies were wrong and so a few countries made it legal again, but kava exists in a legal limbo in much of the world.

In the 1500s, it was illegal for a physician to conduct surgery on a patient without first calculating the position of the moon.  

And finally I return to my salon to tell you the truth about snake oil.  We know it as a disparaging term meaning a fake remedy, but it actually means a lot more in the context of Asian history.  The ancient Chinese used it long before it was brought to the US and got a bad reputation.  It was made from Chinese water snakes, meaning it was rich in omega-3 acids.  So it was successful at treating things like arthritis and joint pain.  

Thanks for watching Mental_Floss here on YouTube, which is made with the help of all of these nice people.  I wonder what they'll be saying about Pepto-Bismol in a hundred years.  Can you believe that people once ate pink chalk in order to feel better?  Anyway, as we say in my hometown--Don't forget to be awesome.