Modern treatments for cancer are hardly a picnic; chemotherapy, for one, has a host of horrible side-effects. But modern cancer patients may take a little bit of comfort from the fact that, up until the 20th century, things were much, much worse. Depending on the era and location in which a cancer sufferer was born in human history, they were likely to be encouraged to press dead kittens to their skin, burn crabs alive, ingest lead and hellebore, or inject themselves with the blood of bacteria-infested sheep, all in the minute hope that it might do some good. As you may have guessed, very few of these proposed historical cancer treatments did anything of use, and it’s only in the modern age that cancer has become, in some circumstances, less than a death sentence.
There’s a lot we still don’t know about cancers, which is unsurprising, considering the huge diversity of types around; there are so many that the National Cancer Institute has to maintain an A-Z listing. (This is why when somebody discusses “the cure for cancer,” they’re not being even vaguely accurate; there is no such thing as a catch-all treatment.) But the more we know, the more we can be absolutely sure that votive offerings, powdered boar bone, and fox lungs are not going to be helpful. Though, of course, now that I say this, next week somebody will publish a study about the usefulness of fox lung tissue in treating lymphoma. Who knows?
Hopefully, one day, chemotherapy will seem just as bizarre and in the past as these historical treatments for cancer.
1. Surgery Using Leeks & Bread
The practice of removing cancerous tumors and growths has been around for quite some time; there’s evidence of its recommendation back in ancient Greece. However, the problem with relatively unsophisticated surgery is that there can be complications.
The Romans, though, had ideas on how to deal with that. The Roman medical writer Archigenes of Apamea gave extensive surgical advice about removing cancerous tumors, including where to move nerves and how to place ligatures; but when things got rough and the patient hemorrhaged, the surgeon was supposed to cauterize the area with a hot iron (note that this was pre-anesthetic), suture it up, and then try to help healing by putting on a helpful poultice made of leeks, bread, and salt, which were meant to reduce bleeding.
2. Offering The Cancerous Limb To The Gods
If traditional cures weren’t working and you were hesitant to try surgery, the ancient Greeks tended to recommend asking for divine intervention. Women with breast cancer in Greece, for instance, were usually subjected to extreme bloodletting, because their cancer was thought to be related to some kind of build-up of stagnant menstrual blood in their breasts; but if that didn’t work, they could ask for the help of the deity Asclepius. In order to lodge an appeal with said divinity, though, you had to follow a specific format: make or buy a model of the cancerous limb or body part out of clay and take it to his temple, leaving it behind as a votive offering. (Depending on the type of cancer, your model had different forms: breasts and ears, for instance, contained holes for hanging up, while heads were stacked flat on shelves.)
3. Burning Crabs Alive & Wearing The Paste
The term “cancer” itself comes from the Greek medical writer Hippocrates, who named it carcinoma, the Greek term for crab, in reference to hard-shelled tumors that could “creep” from place to place. And it’s likely due to this idea that we have one of the strangest suggested cures of the ancient world, from Hippocrates’ follower Galen, who greatly advanced our understanding of cancer with huge treatises on the subject.
Galen was largely a fan of enemas and laxatives as cancer cures, but in a pinch, he recommended burning a bunch of crabs alive, making the ashes and bits of burnt crab into a paste with oil, and then brushing it over a cancerous tumor with a bird feather. What you did after this was unclear; cancer patients may well have had to wear this concoction until it came off. (Interestingly, a 17th century paste of crab’s eyes was in the shops for curing cancer, indicating that the idea remained in the medical consciousness.)
4. Purging With Toxic Black Hellebore
Perspectives on the medical treatment of cancer were drawn from Hippocrates, Galen and writers following them all the way up to the early modern period. For the ancient Greeks and medieval Europeans, cancer was likely caused by an imbalance of the four “humors” that made up the body’s composition and determined personality and health: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. To restore balance, cancer sufferers were usually made to go through a grueling program of laxatives, blood-letting, and forcible vomiting, though certain medical specialists helpfully proposed herbal help for the purging bit. 15th century French doctor Lazarus Riverius cheerfully advocated “the root of black hellebore, which is most effective to purge melancholy,” another term for black bile. Unfortunately for Riverius’s patients, black hellebore is deeply toxic to humans.
5. Applying A Freshly-Killed Kitten To Draw Out A Wolf
Early modern England was a particularly bizarre place to have cancer, if reports of proposed cures are anything to go by. Alanna Skuse, in Constructions of Cancer in Early Modern England, reports one particularly charming method: holding the flesh of a freshly slaughtered rabbit, puppy, kitten, or lamb to a cancerous ulcer. This “meat cure,” as Skuse calls it, wasn’t anything to do with the healing power of meat juices; it was designed, apparently, to draw out the “wolf” that was living in the body and gradually devouring the patient from the inside.
It was folk medicine rather than official medical doctrine, but Skuse records a doctor from the 18th century, Daniel Turner, reporting with evident annoyance that a woman had told him, after a visit to a doctor, that “when [the physician] held a Piece of raw Flesh at a Distance from the Sore, the Wolf peeps out, discovering his Head, and gaping to receive it.”
6. Ingesting Fox Lungs & Crocodile Dung
The collection of apothecary substances devoted to curing cancers in the 17th to 19th centuries appeared to be based on one principle: the more toxic, the better. In his award-winning The Emperor Of All Maladies: A Biography Of Cancer, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee lists a truly frightening arsenal of potential substances available to people attempting to fight cancers of all kinds: “tincture of lead, extracts of arsenic, boar’s tooth, fox lungs, rasped ivory, hulled castor, ground white coral, ipecac, senna… goat’s dung, frogs, crow’s feet, dog fennel, tortoise liver” and the list goes on. Other historians of the 1800s have found evidence of bread pills, lizard blood, and crocodile dung. One senses that perhaps the treatment was worse than the disease.
7. Using Infected Sheep & Rabbit Brain Serums
In the early 1900s, new science for the treatment of cancer abounded, but one particular method, which unfortunately never worked, was the idea of an “anti-serum:” something that could use infected or cancerous people and animals to make a substance to cure cancers. A list of “Newer Remedies” published in 1908 contains anticancrin, a serum for curing cancer apparently made from “sheep inoculated with erysipelas cultures.” (Erysipelas is a bacterial infection of the skin, and is most commonly found in pigs. What it has to do with cancers remains completely unclear.) A more superficially promising anti-serum was created in the early 1900s, by the Czech scientist Albert Adamkiewicz, who claimed that cancerous material derived from the brain of a rabbit could cure cancers, but the serum never produced any reported cures. These poor animals.