5 Medical Treatments That Were Total Fails

5 Medical Treatments That Were Total Fails

failing grade
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It's doubtful that anybody—or more likely any group of people—sets out to develop a foolish and  dangerous medical treatment. Nevertheless, we didn't always have firm scientific bases for the medicine that we practiced. Only in the twentieth century did medicine become more evidence based, with prescription medical treatments vetted by the FDA. 

(Fun fact: although not known as the FDA, or Food and Drug Administration, until 1930, the FDA's consumer protection and regulatory activities began in 1906 after the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act.)

It may be considered harsh to call any medical treatment—ostensibly done for the benefit of humanity—a total fail. However, with most of the following treatments, there's no redemptive value.

So without further ado, here are 5 medical treatments that were total fails ...

Failed Medical Treatment #1: Lobotomies

Picture of lobotomy being perfromed in England in 1948. Getty Images

In 1935, neurologist Egas Moniz and neurosurgeon Almeida Lima started doing lobotomies (prefrontal leukotomies) on people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders.  

A lobotomy is a procedure that separates the frontal lobe from the rest of the brain, rendering the patient unable to think.

By 1936, an American neurologist named Walter Freeman and an American neurologist named James Watts started doing a modified version of the lobotomy stateside, a procedure that quickly caught on all over the world.

By 1949 an estimated 10,000 lobotomies had been performed both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. 

Also in 1949, Moniz, who developed the procedure in the first place won, a Nobel Prize for his work even though by that time many viewed the surgery as inhumane, unethical and unscientific.

Failed Medical Treatment #2: Cocaine in Coca-Cola

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In the late 1800s, John Stith Pemberton started selling a spirit called French Wine Coca in the Atlanta area. French Wine Coca was a mix of wine and cocaine.

Just in case you're wondering, when cocaine is mixed with alcohol it forms cocaethylene, a dangerous compound that's even more euphoric than cocaine.

By 1886, Pemberton had switched out the wine in French Wine Coca for sugar syrup thus creating what later became known as Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola, which was replete with cocaine until 1905, was advertised as a stimulant and "cure for all nervous affections."

Failed Medical Treatment #3: Tobacco as a Cure-All


By 1500, Christopher Columbus and other explorers introduced Europe to tobacco. Tobacco was subsequently touted a cure for all that ills and used to treat sores, aches, fever, thirst, hunger, hemorrhoids and hysteria.

For more, check out this article titled "Does Nicotine Have Medical Uses?"

Even more absurdly in Europe in the 1700s, tobacco smoke was blown up a patient's rectum to treat many conditions, including strangulated hernia, constipation, hydrophobia, tetanus, drowning and worms. Now you know where the term "blowing smoke up your arse" comes from!

Failed Medical Treatment #4: Trepanation

Trepanation performed by medievel surgeon circa 1300. Getty Images

Trepanation goes by many names: trephination, trepanning and trephining. All these terms relate to the practice of drilling a burr hole into a person's skull. 

Trepanation was the first surgery every performed by man and dates back to the Neolithic Period or  Stone Age, about 10,000 years ago. Yes, trepanation was once done in squalid conditions using a sharpened bit of stone! Furthermore, prehistoric societies from across the world performed trepanation, including those in Asia, Europe and South America. 

According to Sir William Osler, one of the 4 founders of Johns Hopkins Medicine:

[Trepanation] was done for epilepsy, infantile convulsions, headache and various cerebral diseases believed to be caused by confined demons to whom the hole gave a ready method of escape.

In its capacity to treat an array of neurological diseases (and exorcise demons), trepanation was a total fail. Nevertheless, there is a modern form of trepanation called craniotomy, where a neurosurgeon creates a burr hole to relieve the pressure of a hematoma or brain bleed.

Failed Medical Treatment #5: Prometh With Codeine

passed out

Sure, Prometh With Codeine Cough Syrup is a heck of a cough suppressant. However, this cough syrup also makes for a dastardly drug of misuse when cut with alcohol and soda to create "Purple Drank." For many, Purple Drank has amounted to death—or at least emergency hospitalization—in a styrofoam cup.

After a series of high-profile deaths due to the super-depressant Purple Drank, drug manufacturer Actavis pulled Prometh With Codeine Cough Syrup, Purple Drank's active ingredient, off the market for good in 2014.

For more about Purple Drank click here.

Selected Sources

Article titled "Medicinal uses of tobacco in history" by A. Charlton published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 2004.  Accessed on October 29, 2015.

Article titled "Violence, mental illness, and the brain – A brief history of psychosurgery: Part 1 – From trephination to lobotomy" by MA Faria published in Surgical Neurology International in 2013. Accessed on 1/11/2016.

Article titled "Surgery for Psychiatric Disorders" by J. Luigjes and co-authors published in World Neurosurgery in 2013. Accessed on 1/11/2016.