Based on superstition, tradition, and early science, medical treatments in the past could be crude, risky, and excruciating for the hapless patient. Certainly, advances in medical knowledge and safety standards have altered the types of jobs available in the healthcare sector.
Here are five professions that have (thankfully) become defunct.
1. Leech collector
In early modern Europe, illness was thought to be a result of excess bodily fluids – humours – in the body, one of the four being blood. Hence, a common medical practice of the time was bloodletting – losing blood – using leeches.
To satisfy the ‘leech craze’, people, consisting mostly of women, would stick their bare legs into ponds to attract the bloodthirsty worms. When they latched onto the collector’s legs, they would be pulled off, collected, and sold to a doctor.
Although the work was not physically demanding, leech collectors ran the risk of blood loss and infection from microbes the leeches carried.
2. Plague doctor
The bubonic plague which struck in the 14th century was likely the most devastating pandemic in human history, causing the deaths of 50 million people in Europe. With the onset of the black death came the plague doctors in their distinctive masks stuffed with sweet-smelling herbs in the beak.
This was thought to be a preventative measure against the plague, as the common belief then was that illness was carried by bad odours. The traditional plague doctor outfit included a long canvas robe, leather pants, gloves, boots, hat, and hood, all of which were coated in wax.
To complete the fearsome ensemble, a pair of spectacles was worn to protect the eyes, as well as a wooden cane, likely to make as little physical contact with patients as possible. These doctors treated the sick using herbs and strange objects like leeches and toads – often, to no avail.
As ineffectual as their treatments were, they got one thing right: the plague doctor outfit was the precursor to the hazmat suits worn at disease hotspots today.
Up until the 19th century, as the jacks of all trades in medieval Europe, barber-surgeons were called upon to provide a hodge-podge of painful services. These ranged from performing amputations, giving tooth extractions, and delivering enemas, to selling medicines, removing hangnails and cutting hair.
The fearsome barber-surgeon’s methods of advertisement were about as gruesome as their methods of performing their services: some would string a row of teeth extracted from customers, and hang them in front of their shop windows; others chose to recycle their bloody bandages.
In fact, the traditional barber pole design, with the red stripes, harks back to when bloody bandages would be wrapped around poles outside the barber-surgeon’s shop.
4. Toad doctor
Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, toads were thought to have medicinal properties. As part of a dubious, medicinal folk magic cure, toad doctors would apply the amphibian to the affected area.
The toad cure was favoured for conditions like bleeding, and particularly scrofula, a skin disease, which is a form of tuberculosis affecting lymph nodes in the neck.
Interestingly, the ‘toad cure’ may not be completely bogus – scientists have discovered possible therapeutic uses for the amphibian’s skin secretions, which have painkilling, antiviral, antimicrobial, and even anticancer properties.
5. Medicine men
Medicine men of the 1800s to early 1900s were a sight with their miracle tonics and entertaining medical shows. Not to be confused with the spiritual healers of Native American cultures, these medicine men travelled around, peddling their dollar-a-bottle cures and restoratives in old west towns and appealing to gullible cowboys who wanted a quick, cheap way of achieving good health.
At a time when qualified doctors were scarce, the elixirs of the traveling medicine men performed the same function (in the eyes of the crowd) with their high content of alcohol and drugs like cocaine and heroin.
They did not find the same favour with legitimate doctors, who were often blamed for deaths that were directly or indirectly linked to the medicine man’s quack cures. MIMS
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