As health writers, we encourage patients to adhere to their treatments, look after themselves and stay healthy. Whether we’re writing articles, blogs, news, patient handouts, research papers, materials for doctors or copy to sell products, we create content in order to help educate the public about their health and improve global health outcomes.
It would be fair to say that the health writers of the past had the same grand vision – though they were tasked with promoting very different medical treatments and had a smaller range of mediums to utilise.
From advertisements depicting doctors promoting cigarettes to creative poems about tobacco enemas (see below), it’s clear that health communication has changed dramatically over time.
In fact, the marketing messages that were used to promote medical treatments from the past – along with the treatments themselves – are as fascinating as they are shocking.
Whether or not there’s inspiration to be drawn from these ads and anecdotes remains to be seen – but one thing’s for sure: next time you’re struggling with a writing project, be thankful you haven’t been tasked with promoting crocodile-poo contraceptives.
Tobacco enema rhyme
Ever wondered where the saying ‘to blow smoke up one’s ass’ comes from? This expression, which means that someone is giving you an insincere compliment, was once a literal procedure. Tobacco enemas were used to treat colds, drowsiness and stomach pain – among other ailments.
This treatment is perhaps most famously remembered by a short yet powerful rhyme, penned in 1774 by one Dr Houlston:
Tobacco glister, breath and bleed.
Keep warm and rub till you succeed.
And spare no pains for what you do;
May one day be repaid to you.
Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup
The ad for Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was supported by an energetic call-to-action along with, shall we say, a creative license to capitalise. The problem? It contained morphine.
Touted as a ‘perfectly harmless’ treatment that ‘produces natural quiet sleep’, this product apparently had a host of benefits and was dubbed ‘the mother’s friend.’
ADVICE TO MOTHERS!—Are you broken in your rest by a sick child suffering with the pain of cutting teeth? Go at once to a chemist and get a bottle of MRS. WINSLOW’S SOOTHING SYRUP. It will relieve the poor sufferer immediately. It is perfectly harmless and pleasant to taste, it produces natural quiet sleep, by relieving the child from pain, and the little cherub awakes “as bright as a button.” It soothes the child, it softens the gums, allays all pain, relieves wind, regulates the bowels, and is the best known remedy for dysentery and diarrhoea, whether arising from teething or other causes. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup is sold by Medicine dealers everywhere at 1s. 1½d. per bottle. Manufactured in New York and at 498, Oxford-street, London.
Cocaine – nature’s elixir!
In ye olde medicine land, cocaine was the number one remedy for everything from your child’s toothache to alcoholism. Tell them to drink more, then hand them our tawny port!
Gentle massage service
When you were female and a little unwell, medical professionals like Dr Swift here used to treat you by administering, well, you get the picture.
Dr Batty’s asthma cigarettes ad
Dr Batty (he certainly was) invented some clever cigarettes which provided temporary relief from asthma as well as ‘all diseases of the throat’. For your health, of course.
Crocodile poo contraception
It’s exactly what you think it is. Ancient Egyptian women used crocodile poo as a form of contraception.
In ancient Egyptian medicine, animal dung was thought to have incredible healing properties and was used to treat many a health concern. Those clever Egyptians didn’t stop there, though – they’re also renowned for treating toothaches with a dead mouse paste.
The Kahun Papyrus, which is said to detail this treatment, dates from 1850 B.C. and is the oldest surviving medical text in the world – as well as the closest item we have to an ‘ancient medical marketing material.’
Health jolting chair ad
This comfortable-looking health jolting chair was promoted as the ‘most important health mechanism ever produced’ and in somewhat of a journey into the typography of the past, it appears to use at least 12 different fonts and size combinations.
I could go on (and in fact, I did – you can view even more creepy medical treatments from the past on my Pinterest board here). The more you explore into these old and ancient cures, the more bizarre remedies you will find. Blended corpse formulas, skull-licking, mercury antiseptics, animal bile treatments and goat testicle implantation were just some of the many medical procedures and ‘cures’ that society accepted as the norm at some point throughout history.
I wonder: will the health writers of the future also look back at our work – and our modern-day treatments – with the same feelings of disbelief, bewilderment and trepidation? Time will tell.
What’s the most bizarre medical treatment you have written about? Does it top this list?