circa 1799:  The deathbed of George Washington (1732 - 1799), the 1st President of the United States of America (1789 - 1797). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Think injections are bad? These 250-year-old cures are way worse!

Theodore Pappas, Executive Editor at Encyclopaedia Britannica, discovers some of the more unusual cures for well-known illness from the oldest continuously published and revised work in the English language.

A lot has changed in the last 250 years. Back then, there had been no American or French revolutions, ‘Australia’ was yet to be discovered by Europeans, and Uranus, Neptune or Pluto by anyone at all. There were no telephones, no electricity, railroads or cars, let alone any possibility of space travel. No aspirin or penicillin, or X-rays, Periodic Table or Special Theory of Relativity. In fact, Napoleon, Lincoln, Darwin and Einstein had yet to be born.

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But one entity did exist in 1768, and continues to this day, two and a half centuries later: Encyclopædia Britannica, the oldest continuously published and revised work in the English language. While the final print edition of the encyclopaedia appeared in 2012, the publication lives on in digital form at britannica.com.

Because of the longevity and regularity of its published editions, the encyclopaedia serves as a wonderful mirror of the evolution of knowledge. These changes are well illuminated in Britannica’s new anniversary publication – a 735-page commemorative volume entitled the Encyclopædia Britannica Anniversary Edition: 250 Years of Excellence (1768-2018).

Here are a few excerpts from the book covering seven scientific myths from the past 250 years, highlighting some of the strange notions and bizarre cures we once believed.

The physician's office (1482) - leeches are shown to 'suck' humors from a diseased area © Bettmann/Getty Images

BALDNESS – Fox Urine and Onions

A fresh-cut onion, a dash of wine—no, not ingredients for dinner but for the potions that cure baldness. As Britannica suggested in its entry on ‘Alopecia’ in its 4th Edition (1801–09), these ingredients, if properly prepared and applied, can indeed regrow hair, even hair lost due to contact with that chief foe of follicles: fox urine.

DEAFNESS, a CURE – Ant Eggs and Onions

Few afflictions have occasioned more “miracle cures” than deafness. From swallowing pepper and drinking urine to bloodletting, tomato eating, and falling from high places, Britannica added the following in its 1st Edition (1768–71): ant eggs, onions, white wine, and (a classic folk remedy) smoke blown into the ear.

BLOODLETTING – A (Painfully) Detailed Guide

After George Washington contracted a cold, strep throat, and perhaps epiglottitis after an extended wintry ride through his estate on December 12, 1799, causing a swelling of the larynx that nearly suffocated him, his aides and doctors proceeded with the prescribed treatments of the day: they gave him gargles of molasses, vinegar, and butter; put his feet in warm water; emptied his bowels with a powerful enema; applied a compress of dried beetles on his throat; and, most significantly, bled him, repeatedly, four or five times, perhaps draining the former president of half his body’s volume of blood.

Washington went into shock and hypotension, which likely sparked the calm he experienced shortly before he died two nights after his ride. While the extensive bleedings of her 67-year-old husband terrified Martha Washington, one doctor later thought they “missed the mark” and should have been conducted closer to the throat, such as under the tongue, thereby following the then-conventional belief that bloodletting was most successful if performed closest to the inflamed organ or body part in trauma.

As one of medicine’s oldest practices, bloodletting was, until only 150 years ago, the first-line treatment for nearly every ailment—from migraine to mental illness. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Britannica’s coverage of phlebotomy was extensive in the 18th century. In fact, as seen in Britannica’s “Surgery” entry in its 1st Edition (1768–71), the encyclopaedia offered a kind of step-by-step manual for do-it-yourself bloodletting. These procedures, warned Britannica, were not for the faint of heart: perform them only on a bed or near a couch, for some patients are likely to ‘fall into a swoon’.

CROSSED EYES – A Contagious Disease

Some looks can kill, while others may simply leave people . . . cross-eyed. Apparently so, as strabismus was considered a contagious disorder in the 18th century, as seen in Britannica’s 1st Edition (1768–71):

A strabismus, commonly called squinting, is an unequal contraction of the muscles of the eye, either from a spasm, an epilepsy, or a palsy, whereby the axis of the pupil is drawn towards the nose, temples, forehead, or cheeks: so that the person cannot behold an object directly.

Infants readily contract this distemper, sometimes for want of care in the nurses, who place the cradles in a wrong position, with regard to the light. Children likewise, while growing up, sometimes fall into this disorder, either from ill customs contracted in playing, or by looking on others who are affected with it.

This disorder is very difficult to cure; therefore the utmost care should be taken to prevent it, and the cradle should be so placed, as not to occasion the child to look a-wry. [The ancient Greek physician Paulus] Ægineta contrived a mask, and so adapted it to the face, that nothing could be seen except through two holes straight forward; and for the same purpose what we call gogglers are used.

STROKES, a CURE – Cut the Jugular

Conduct bloodletting of the arm or cut the jugular; rub the patient’s hands, head, and feet; have ‘two strong men’ walk the patient from room to room; and ‘blow in the mouth and nostrils the smoke of tobacco from an inverted pipe’. Thus were the common methods of treating stroke patients in the 18th century, as described in Britannica’s coverage of ‘Apoplexy’ in its 1st Edition (1768–71).

TEETHING, a CURE – Leeches and Marshmallows

‘Adam and Eve had many advantages’, quipped Mark Twain, ‘but the principal one was that they escaped teething’. For youngsters not as fortunate as our ‘first parents’, Britannica recommended three things in its 1st Edition (1768–71): leeches under the ears to reduce the swelling; a penknife to cut the gums to make way for the teeth; and opiates or a concoction of marshmallows, poppy heads and cream to assuage the child’s pain (and perhaps horror—after the youngster got a glimpse of the leeches and knife).

TUBERCULOSIS, a CURE – Ride Horses, Take a Cruise, Bury the Patient

Tuberculosis (TB), long called ‘consumption’, is an ancient disease, found in mummies thousands of years old. Perceptions of the disease, and how to treat it, have varied greatly through the ages, and in the 19th century, believing TB mainly ‘consumed’ people with a fine and delicate constitution, there arose a rich romanticising of the disease. Consumptive artists were more creative, consumptive women more beautiful (their cheeks ruddied by fever), especially in the days right before they died—or so folks believed. Britannica’s first two editions reflect this strange history, as well as some of the bizarre ‘cures’ recommended for fighting the disease.  As was often the case in 18th century, bloodletting was a popular remedy for nearly any ailment, including TB:

Spitting of blood is cured by copious bleeding every third day, to the fourth time, or till the inflammatory pellicle entirely disappears… The quantity of blood to be drawn is from four to seven or eight ounces, once in eight or 10 days… The most sovereign remedy to restore the lungs to their pristine vigour is to get on horseback every day; and he that will put himself upon this exercise for a cure, need not be tied down to any strict rules of diet, nor be debarred from any sort of meat or drink, since the whole stress of the matter depends wholly on the constant and continual exercise of riding. Long sea-voyages have also been greatly recommended.

Later, in the 2nd Edition (1778-83), it was recorded that a Dr Solano de Luque had chosen

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a spot of ground on which no plants had been sown, and there he made a hole large and deep enough to admit the [consumptive] patient up to the chin. The interstices of the pit were then carefully filled up with the fresh mould, so that the earth might everywhere come in contact with the patient’s body. In this situation the patient was suffered to remain till he began to shiver or felt himself uneasy…  The patient was then taken out, and, after being wrapped in a linen cloth, was placed upon a mattress, and two hours afterwards his whole body was rubbed with an ointment, composed of the leaves of the solanum nigrum and hog’s lard. He observes, that a new pit must be made every time the operation is repeated.

Theodore Pappas is Executive Editor and Chief Development Officer at Encyclopaedia Britannica and editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica Anniversary Edition: 250 Years of Excellence (1768-2018).  For more information on Britannica’s special anniversary edition, visit britannica.co.uk/250th-anniversary-book-of-the-year.

Theodore Pappas is Executive Editor and Chief Development Officer at Encyclopaedia Britannica and editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica Anniversary Edition: 250 Years of Excellence (1768-2018). For more information on Britannica's special anniversary edition, visit britannica.co.uk/250th-anniversary-book-of-the-year.