That Was Healthy, and Now It's Deadly: History's Worst Health Claims


By: Staff

4 Min Quiz

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About This Quiz

Once upon a time wombs were thought to wander, tobacco was known as "God's remedy," and eggs were bad for you. Today we know those things aren't true, and many historical health claims weren't just wrong — they were dangerous.

Which of the following treatments is considered one of medicine's oldest remedies?

Bloodletting is thought to have begun among the ancient Egyptians. It was used by Greek physicians, was popular throughout the Roman empire and was the standard treatment for many health problems, from plague to pox, in medieval Europe. By the end of the 19th century, bloodletting's popularity waned not because it could (and often did) result in accidental death, but because of new treatments and discoveries.


True or false: Before the College of Physicians was founded in the 16th century, is it true some doctors believed a person could get sick based on the alignment of the planets?

Before training became available at the College of Physicians, many doctors didn't have much education. Some followed the philosophies of Hippocrates, but others relied on astrology.


Which drug, once a popular prescription NSAID pain reliever, was withdrawn from the market after scientists found it actually caused heart attacks, strokes and death?

Pharmaceutical company Merck withdrew its drug Vioxx after it was discovered the drug raised the risk of heart attack during the first two years of use.


There was a time when if you wanted to exfoliate your skin, you could use a product containing tiny plastic beads. Do these products still exist?

Yes, but they aren't the same as they used to be. Because of the negative environmental effects (marine creatures ingest the beads) when they end up in lakes and oceans, beads are now biodegradable


In the 18th and 19th centuries, hemiglossectomies, procedures to remove part of the tongue, were commonly performed to correct what problem?

Removing part of the tongue was how a stutter was corrected among Europeans in the 18th and 19th centuries.


During the 18th century, what would have been an acceptable treatment for a person with symptoms of a mental illness?

These were all common physical treatments for mental health concerns.


Which was once a common ingredient in teething relievers?

Remedies to relieve teething babies often contained alcohol. The label for vintage Atkinson Infants Preservative, for instance, shows it has no narcotic content, although it does contain 50 percent alcohol.


True or false: The Radiendocrinator was meant to treat erectile dysfunction.

The Radiendocrinator, which was a 2-by-3 inch (5-by-8 centimeter) case containing radium-infused paper (250 microcuries or 9.25 million becquerel), was intended to be worn against the skin "like an athletic strap."


How old did you have to be to take advantage of the temporary relief of asthma symptoms, bad breath and other cold and allergy symptoms?

In the late 19th century, if you were 6 years old you could buy "asthma cigarettes" to relieve such things bad breath, ulcers and, of course, asthma.


How far back can we trace the earliest evidence of opium usage?

The earliest evidence of opium use traces back to 3,400 B.C.E.


Got a toothache? Up until 1914, you could buy "toothache drops," which numbed the pain with which active ingredient?

If you or your child had a toothache, you could relieve the pain with cocaine. Seriously.


What was a sip of absinthe once thought to cure?

Absinthe was once considered a cure for roundworms.


Mercury was once used as a treatment for which sexually transmitted disease?

In the 1500s, it was believed mercury could cure syphilis. Today it's believed the physician who made the discovery didn't understand or know about the disease's remission periods.


Which brand of cigarette claimed "more doctors smoke ____ than any other cigarette!"?

That advertising campaign claimed that according to a national survey, more doctors smoked Camels, manufactured by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, than any other cigarette.


What WASN'T an active ingredient in the "Wizard Oil cure" of 1861?

Wizard Oil, aka snake oil, claimed to cure pretty much everything. Bleeding gums? Check. Cholera? Yup. Sprains and cramps, too. Its boldest claim, though, was that it could erase your pain away — and from any beast, for that matter. While Wizard Oil probably didn't cure anything, its ingredients, including alcohol, chloroform and turpentine, could have been fatal. While we can't be 100 percent certain, we feel pretty confident that it didn't contain methamphetamine.


Which spirit was thought to ward off plague?

Consuming gin was thought to be a way to avoid getting the plague.


What was the not-so-secret ingredient in Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, made by Charlotte Winslow and marketed by her son-in-law in 1849 in Maine?

Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup used morphine to ease the pain of teething and to calm babies who couldn't sleep.


Before the little blue pill that could, erectile dysfunction was treated with radioactive wax rods that were inserted into what part of the body?

Radioactive wax rods, "bougies," prescribed to treat impotence were inserted into the urethra.


What health condition inspired the name of Lewis Carroll's Mad Hatter in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"?

Mercurial disease, caused by chronic mercury poisoning, was common among hatmakers, and the phrase "mad as a hatter" was in use three decades before "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" was published. Due to an occupational hazard caused by a process called "carroting," part of felt hatmaking, hatters often developed symptoms such as tremors, excessive saliva, forgetfulness and unprovoked anger.


True or false: Bayer once made children's cough and cold treatments with heroin as the active ingredient.

For several years, at the turn of the 20th century, Bayer made heroin cough suppressant. (Heroin production was banned in the U.S. in 1924.)


What disease was thought to be cured with shark cartilage?

In the 1950s, surgeon John Prudden began researching whether or not animal cartilage could be used as a medical treatment. His results? That he was to shrink cancer tumors with it. After his book "Sharks Don't Get Cancer" was published in 1992, shark cartilage use skyrocketed.


What did some Chinese healers prescribe their patients with the promise of eternal life and the ability to walk on water?

Want to walk on water and live forever? Some believed this toxic brew of arsenic, mercury and sulfur could do just that.


True or false: Drilling holes into your skull, a treatment called trepanning, relieves cranial pressure.

Trepanation is drilling holes in the skull, perhaps to relieve headaches, treat mental illness or, as some speculate, cure a person presumed to be possessed.


Which is one of the few mental health treatments that has received a Nobel Prize?

Neurologist Egas Moniz won a Nobel Prize in 1949 for introducing the lobotomy, an operation that was supposed to alleviate the symptoms of mental health disorders (and used particularly to treat schizophrenia) by separating the prefrontal region's connection with other parts of the brain.


True or false: Signs of mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, are signs of demonic possession.

Although some cultures may conduct ceremonies (like exorcisms), modern medicine knows that mental illness is caused by several influencing factors, including genes, but not by demonic possession.


Is it true the Romans believed the blood of slain gladiators could cure epilepsy and seizures?

This, along with other remedies such as ground-up mummies (known as mummy powder) and a brew made from alcohol and powdered human skull, was once used as a supposed cure.


Which brand of cigarettes was the first to use the image of a doctor in its marketing campaign?

Lucky Strikes were just what the doctor ordered. They were the first in the industry to use physicians in their advertising. The ad read, “20,679 physicians say 'Luckies are less irritating.'"


What did Roger Bacon, a 13th Century English philosopher and writer on alchemy and medicine, recommend to improve digestion and "defend the body from corruption"?

Bacon wrote that moderate alcohol consumption was good for digestion and would "defend the body from corruption."


Finish this 1932 Wall Street Journal headline: "The ____ Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off."

The headline read, "The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off." During the early part of the 20th century, radioactive products such as radon water — for "vigor" — were the rage.


Inspired by American First Nations people who used tobacco medicinally, medical practitioners in 18th-century England began using it in what way?

Eighteenth-century European doctors used tobacco smoke enemas — with bellows, yes, for blowing the smoke up you-know-where — to treat everything from headaches to death. The enemas fell out of fashion when it was discovered nicotine was damaging to the heart.


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