Humans have made huge advances in science, technology and medicine in the past few thousand years. A significant development by the ancient Greeks around 450 BC was that everything on earth and in the heavens was made up of four elements: Earth, water, fire, and air. This was a cornerstone of philosophy, science and medicine for almost two thousand years. These four elements were even used to describe the four temperaments a person could have and even the Father of Modern Medicine, Hippocrates, used these four elements to describe the four “humors” found in the body. While scientists the world over made many advances in understanding our Earth and our universe between 450 BC and the 1800s, a huge revolution in understanding matter was when a Russian chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev, published what we now refer to as the Periodic Table of Elements, that we still use today as a foundation of our modern science.

20th Century Health and Medicine

While the past century brought us many miracle medicines and treatments. Some common practices that are now considered barbaric, dangerous and sometimes, downright deadly, were in practice as little as 50 or 100 years ago. Some disturbing health remedies and practices of these times were:

Heroin We now know heroin as a highly addictive drug but the Victorians did not know this and heroin was sold as a cough suppressant in the form of elixirs, cough balsams, cough drops, cough lozenges, and cough medicine. 

Narcotics Aside from heroin, narcotics were made available to Victorians for a wide range of problems, including taming unruly and disobedient children. Victorian parents and caregivers did not need a prescription to purchase “soothing” syrups, lozenges and other remedies that contained narcotics and opiates such as morphine, codeine, heroin and powdered opium, for their children.

Lobotomies This method of using an ice pick like tool to get to the brain through the eye socket in order to shred a part of a patient’s brain, was recommended to treat a variety of ailments including depression and schizophrenia, as well as for insolence in teenagers, to name just a few of the reasons lobotomies were still being performed as little as 60 years ago. Lobotomies can in fact help certain conditions and are now performed in rare cases where all other medical interventions have failed, but the common side effects make this a rarely used procedure.

Miracle Medicines Gone Wrong Many medicines and treatments that were once considered miracle medicines are not considered barbaric but have unfortunately come with problematic and sometimes deadly consequences.

Penicillin Before penicillin and other antibiotics became readily available to Americans in the 1940s, people often died from infections, even seemingly small ones such as those from ear infections and minor scrapes. While antibiotics are still widely used and continue to save lives, new antibiotic resistant bacterias that are difficult and sometimes impossible to kill have become common since the widespread use of antibiotics began in the 1940s, and new ones continue to develop.

Opioids Opioid painkillers were a breakthrough in pain management but have come with many negative and dangerous side effects, including addiction. Opioid addiction is an epidemic seen throughout socio-economic classes in the United States that has come with deadly consequences. While opioids still seem to have a solid place in pain management, the number of people who are addicted and who die of overdoses each year, continues to increase.

Many peoples’ lives have been saved by modern, Western medicine even though there have been many dangerous and detrimental health “care” practices throughout time. While it is important to always know potential side effects of medicines and healthcare procedures, it still may be hard to make decisions on whether the positive effects outweigh the negative ones.