15 Ways Doctors Treated Pregnant Women In The Past

Sometimes people get nostalgic about the past. They claim that a long time ago, before the invention of the epidural and in vitro fertilization, babies were conceived and born easily, or at least more comfortably. These people are mistaken. Otherwise, old medical books wouldn’t list a multitude of suggestions to encourage conception and an easier birth. None of them worked, either, or we would have kept those tricks or at least seen a bigger population where they were used. This makes the strangeness of these recommendations even even more discouraging.

Think about how embarrassing it would be to follow one of these recommendations, including the ones involving bird droppings, and discover later that they fail every single time.

There are plenty of silly modern suggestions for your reproductive health, too, but I am going to skip those because they lack the ancients’ sense of style. Mostly, modern superstitions just demand that people take a lot of vitamins, which come in neat little pills that you pick up at the store. If there is food involved, it’s an expensive vegetable or fruit that you are supposed to add to a salad or something -- nothing too elaborate.

It’s as though having conventional medicine as an option makes people less likely to try hawk droppings or something. Our ancestors, however, did not stoop to wimpy pills unless they had saltpeter and uranium in them. Even then, they made their own pills. There is nothing like self-sufficiency in baby-making for entertainment. Especially our entertainment, now that we don’t do any of the following things.

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15 Radioactive Reproductive Health

After Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the radioactive element, radium, it was all the rage. People had no clue how damaging ionizing radiation could be, and the FDA classified it as a natural element so they didn’t regulate it. Inventors everywhere were quick to exploit this by creating ways to make water radioactive so that people could imbibe this amazing element. They pounded it into creams so you could irradiate your skin.

Then, they thought of irradiating the reproductive organs.

These days, most people would find that counter-intuitive, but for a time in the 1910s and 1920s, they thought that the body was rejuvenated by the x-rays and gamma rays that came from radiation. So, some enterprising souls created jockstraps that held radium under a guy’s scrotum. They also mixed it with animal glands to make a suppository for men. For women, there was a ‘Women’s Special Suppository,’ which was inserted where babies come out from. The producers claimed that sticking radium up there would cure all manner of afflictions, including ‘indifference.’ You would think that burning your reproductive organs and giving yourself radiation sickness would deter folks, but apparently not.

14 Mummy Salt For Fertility

Hippocrates gets credit for a lot of things as the Father of Medicine. Before him, it was assumed that if you got sick, it was because the gods hated you. Naturally, this did not lead to helpful responses to illnesses. However, once he started recommending cures, waiting on the will of the gods became an attractive solution. This is especially true if you were trying to get pregnant and were afraid that you were infertile. He recommended making a mash of red niter, cumin, resin and honey and eating it.

All right, honey and cumin could be good, but resin and red niter sound troubling. Modern scholars are divided on what red niter could have been, but it might have been saltpeter (what they make gunpowder out of,) natron (the salt that the Egyptians used to dry the innards of mummies,) or soda ash (a salt used in making glass and as soap.) And normally, resin is something you paint on wood you want to make waterproof. It probably isn’t going to taste great, and definitely isn’t what your modern obstetrician would recommend.

13 How Can You Tell A Hyena’s Right Paw From His Left?

XIR84906 Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) (engraving) by French School, (17th century); Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France; ; French, out of copyright

Pliny the Elder weighed in on many matters, most of which he had no understanding of. He wrote a bunch of books, one of which was full of medical recommendations that could be boiled down to ‘take some helpless animal, do something gross to it, and rub it on you.’ His cure for toothaches was applying a decaying mouse to it - the longer it had been dead, the better. Fortunately, his recommendation for an easy birth did not involve mice, fresh or rotten.

It involves hyena feet, presumably removed from the hyena, since he didn’t mention making the hyena stay still.

To be exact, he said that the laboring woman should keep the right paw of a hyena on her belly during labor.

He warned that using the left paw would kill you. That raises the question, once the paws are off the hyena, how can you tell the left from the right? Do you look for a wedding ring? They look identical. Also, where is Pliny getting hyenas in Ancient Greece?

12 You Will Now Flog The Bride

The Romans were big on encouraging fertility in women. One way they felt sure would get a woman producing kids was to ritually spank her during the wedding ceremony. This would be done to the music of cymbals and generally be a symbolic start to married life. After the wedding, women still could get their reproduction-encouraging smack during the Roman feast of Lupercalia. Virgil described this holiday as a public feat where men wandered the streets looking for women to spank. And this is one bit of Virgil that seems to have stuck in everyone’s minds. In fact, in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare starts the play with a Lupercalia feast and has Caesar remind Mark Antony to catch his wife, Calpurnia, to ‘shake off this sterile curse.’

Somehow, that strikes me as more encouraging women to hide for the day than to reproduce. Your mileage may vary, though.

11 Pig Droppings During Contractions

Pliny the Elder did not always recommend animal parts as medicine. Sometimes, he recommended far worse things. His suggestion for labor pain was the powdered poop of female pigs. Why female as opposed to male? Sympathetic magic, maybe? At any rate, you were supposed to mix the dried and powdered sow poop in honey wine and drink it when the contractions hit.

A less gross, but still medically questionable, option was milk from the sow with honey wine.

He presented it as a normal part of the birthing process, and not at all as something only desperate women would try, which raises all sorts of troubling questions for anyone wanting to give birth the ‘old-fashioned’ way. If it makes anyone handle their lunch better, another Roman, named Celsus, suggested drinking wild mustard in lukewarm wine. Compared to pig droppings, that sounds downright medicinal.

10 Geese To The Rescue

Another suggestion from Pliny the Elder that involved something you could get out of an animal instead of an animal part was goose swimmers. I have no idea how the ancient Greeks acquired the stuff. Birds have their testicles inside their chest cavities, so it isn’t like you could get at them easily. Maybe they scraped the stuff off of goose eggs or held onto the stuff after eating a roast goose. It was a hard suggestion for the geese.

But it might have been harder on the pregnant woman who wanted to lighten her labor pains. There was no wine involved with this potion. They just added the stuff to water and had the woman gulp it down. Presumably, trying not to gag kept her from thinking about the contractions. On the plus side, the water kept her hydrated and that is always helpful.

9 Catching The Baby

Giving birth in Ancient Rome was hazardous work. Some didn’t survive the ordeal, and it wasn’t unusual for a Roman matron to give birth more than 12 times and only see 3 of those babies grow to adulthood. This led to doctors giving some instructions on the procedure, including making sure that the woman started her labor on a hard bed and moved to a specially-made birthing stool when the baby crowned.

Midwives did the hands-on stuff, but physicians could be called on during difficult births.

And what did they suggest when an infant was particularly difficult to birth? According to Pliny, you would need a good, fresh dog placenta for that. Drape the placenta over the woman’s thighs to catch it, and out popped the baby. Why a dog, when all mammals would have placentas to provide? I don’t know. Availability, I guess.

8 Geese, Pigs, And Now Hawks

The Trotula was a group of books written in the 12th century, and it is generally ascribed to a woman named Trota of Salerno. She is believed to have graduated from the University of Salerno as a physician. Fittingly, the bulk of the Trotula is about women’s health issues, though there are a few nuggets of advice for men as well. And she had some great advice, such as bleeding a woman from the arch of her foot if she doesn’t bleed enough when she is menstruating. And using quicklime as a depilatory. Ok, not great advice. But surely she has good advice for inducing childbirth?

Sadly, no. Her suggestions were to drink ivory shavings (which couldn’t be cheap), or holding a magnet in the right hand. And then she off-handedly writes, “Likewise the white stuff which is found in the excrement of the hawk, given in a potion, is good.” Yes, hawk dropping in a potion of some sort to induce labor. Maybe the stress from gagging on excrement will do it.

7 Weasel Contraception

The Middle Ages was very ‘birth-positive,’ according to some, by which they mean that giving birth was always viewed as a good thing. Nonetheless, women didn’t necessarily always want to conceive and would try to avoid it. One way of doing this involved those lithe little snake-killers, weasels. The Trotula tells you to “Take a male weasel and let its [private parts] be removed and let it be released alive." If you are like me, you are thinking, 'poor weasel.' But it gets worse. It then tells you to take the weasel's jewels and put them in a goose skin (what’s with geese?) and carry them in your bosom.

Yep, you are supposed to have weasel reproductive organs down your shirt front. There are many weasel daddies today who are happy that we humans have switched to the pill.

6 The Abdominal Brain?

The first couple of decades of the 20th century had some truly bizarre contraptions. There was the ‘electrified hairbrush’ that was supposed to encourage hair growth, radium-laced toothpaste that was supposed to really make your teeth sparkle, and all sorts of other interesting devices. But some of the weirdest of these inventions were aimed at enhancing a man’s virility. The Thermalaid was one of these: it ran an electric current through a hard rubber exterior to apply heat to the ‘rectal anatomy.’

This was supposed to wake up the ‘abdominal brain’ and ‘improve local nerve condition.’

Considering that around the same time you could get a vacuum designed to lengthen your man parts and buy pills laced with strychnine that claimed to improve "performance", this was one of the tamer devices.

5 The All-In-One

Sometimes a guy’s nether regions need the royal treatment, and to that end came the Recto Rotor. This machine did it all: it lubricated the prostate and colon while massaging the ‘rectal region.’ It did this from the inside, too, as it was supposed to be inserted down there. Advertisements assured dudes at the turn of the last century that they could use this baby at home to improve that area’s health.

They also claimed that the machine was large enough to be efficient but small enough for anyone under 15 to use. Eh, not sure what they were getting at there. That if you have to ask your parents for the money, they weren’t interested in selling to you? That it fit any adult? Did the manufacturers find the average rectum size by age themselves or did they find that information in a chart somewhere?

4 Devices For A Specific Purpose

The Victorian Era was an odd one, and one of the odder aspects was its take on self-pleasure. The medical community and society at large believed that a man was born with a set amount of little swimmers and that

if he wasted it earlier in his life through self-pleasure he would not only lose his virility, he could literally go insane.

To keep this from happening, Victorian inventors devised some pretty nasty machines. One was the Stephenson Spermatic Truss, invented in 1876. This was a cumbersome device that tied the offending member to a man’s leg. It apparently wasn’t cumbersome enough, because a later version included little spikes that dug into the member when engorged.

The creepiest device, though, had to be the Bowen Device. It was a cap that fit on the tip of a guy’s member and was then tied to his hair by little chains. This gives a whole new painful meaning to the phrase ‘ball and chain.’

3 The Goat Guy

John Romulus Brinkley was proof that you can get rich and famous off exploiting the fears of aging men. Despite never graduating from the Eclectic Medical College of Kansas, he set himself up as a doctor in Milford, Kansas in 1916, and invented a surgery where he transplanted the gonads of goats into men. He built a whole clinic around this surgery, where he let guys handpick the goats that he would take the gonads from.

He claimed that he was restoring the men’s virility, and for a time, he raked in enough money to set up his own radio station and run for governor of Kansas. Then he was indicted for mail fraud, linked to a diploma mill, and sued for malpractice. In true American fashion, he shifted his operation south of the Border and carried on torturing goats and men until he died in May of 1942.

2 Oysters For A Good Time

Humans have been eating oysters since at least since 2000 BC. They were particularly popular in the Victorian Era. And for some of that time, they have had a reputation as a romantic mood-enhancer and aphrodisiac. This may stem from Giacomo Casanova, who claimed to eat 50 oysters every morning for breakfast in his autobiography, The Story of My Life. In this same 12-volume work, he talks about dalliances with 120 women and hints at a few with men, too. The man got around.

While oysters do have zinc, which is important for increasing testosterone, their only power is to make a fancy snack at parties.

None-the-less, virtually everyone who read The Story of My Life took Casanova at his word that he got his virility from oysters. An abridged version was published in 1822, and the full story was published in 1960. Oysters have had the love-enhancing rep ever since. Where Casanova got the idea is anyone’s guess.

1 Smelling Fertility

Sometimes, the only thing you need to conceive is good timing. These days, that would mean tracking your menstrual cycle, but for a long time, the connection wasn’t obvious. Or at least it wasn’t to Hippocrates. He had two more ways to decide if you’re ready to conceive, and both of them made some very weird assumptions about female anatomy.

His first suggestion was to rub garlic near the reproductive organs and then check the woman for garlic breath. If your breath smelled like an Italian kitchen, you were ready for babies. He didn’t seem to realize that there are a lot of other organs between the mouth and the back end, or that infants don’t grow in your chest.

His second suggestion was that you drink water with anise in it. If your belly button itched the next day, you were fertile. First of all, how long did he think it took to digest water? Second of all, how is anise itchy? And why the belly button? What was he thinking?

References: telegraph.co.uk, houstonpress.com, Quackery, books.google.com, thelist.com

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