I am science’s psychofan. My believe in it is stronger than my conviction that Nutella is a genuine healer. However, the longer my education path the more flops I notice. Strict principles that apply to the world of microscopes, test tubes and people in lab coats aren’t enough to prevent science from getting on the wrong track. Track that leads to the wilderness far, far away from civilization and logic. I dug up some examples showing how science came to a deadlock inciting mass face-palm reaction.
It seems that at the beginning of the 20th century scalpels functioned as psychoactive drugs do nowadays. Surgical removal of brain fragments was gaining more and more popularity. Such surgeries were prescribed as a remedy for a vast array of mental complaints e.g. depression, impaired consciousness, epilepsy or psychosis. Although today it is a dynamically developing and fruitful field, in the past it did more harm than good. The problem was that, from today’s point of view, doctors of the time did not have professional equipment at their disposal. There was no way they could conduct a surgery with precision, so an average surgeon had no idea what brain structure he was working on, and he cut things out at random, often getting rid of big cortex fragments or hippocampus which governs memory. Patients who underwent those treatments had their personality altered, experienced apathy, amnesia, were unable of decision making and became excessively aggressive. All in all, the surgeries were deemed successful, there was something wrong just with the patients.
2. Noble Prize to the man who had his share in the biggest tragedy ever
Fritz Haber, German chemist, who was awarded Nobel Prize in 1918 for inventing a method of synthesizing ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen gasses. He opted for implementing this method into industry, as at that time prognostics feared quickly spreading famine. It was discovered that compounds of nitrogen have stimulating effect on plants, therefore, could be used as fertilizers significantly increasing crops and agricultural productivity. That was noble.
But the story doesn’t stop there. During World War I Harber started (and later finished successfully) working on ways of applying chemical weapon on battlefield, claiming that the sooner Germany wins war the smallest final death toll will be. After the war he was the first to synthesize Zyklon B – gas originally used for disinfection and insecticidal purposes, finally used for killing masses in gas chambers. As a Jew by descent, he was forced to officially convert to Christianity despite all his services. Conversion did not prevent his dismissal from university and further sanctions which forced him to flee abroad. Harber avoided lethal poisoning with gas he invented himself by the skin of his teeth. Oh, the irony.
Year 1918 was literally electrifying. USA was introduced with a new device for treating all possible ailments (according to its producers), from headache, appendicitis and hypertension to menopausal symptoms. Its mode of action was giving electric shocks to various body parts. All a patient had to do was to put an inductorium to the sore spot and then wait for magical healing effects of the shock.
Nearly 300 000 electreats were sold bringing in a substantial profit. Sadly, producers were eventually prosecuted. It has been proven that they sold electreat fully aware of the fact that it didn’t display any healing properties, and, in some cases, was even harmful. As for the latter, some users suffered from slow blood flow and dementia syndromes.
4. Have swellings and blush excessively? Try bloodletting!
Surprisingly, during centuries bloodletting was believed to be a perfect treatment for all kinds of complaints. People thought that by letting blood out of the body they would expel malevolent spirits that cause diseases. Later this belief was enriched with pseudo-scientific theses and lived on up until the 19th century! Each case was good enough to “bleed” a patient including situations of post-phlebotomy weakness and post-phlebotomy wound infections. One of the bloodletting fatalities is George Washington who suffered from respiratory tract infection. His doctor treated him with a scalpel put to Washington’s blood vessels. Reportedly, after few sessions about half of his blood was removed sending the great general to the afterword.
5. X-ray in a shoe shop
Shortly after discovering X-radiation, when people weren’t yet aware of its harmfulness, lots of shoe shops were equipped with shoe-fitters, i.e. x-ray machines.
The purpose was to examine the position of bones in ones feet while trying on a new pair of shoes. It was especially helpful when buying shoes for children. It was years later when concerns about X-ray overexposure emerged. It became clear that the results are serious and include bone marrow damage, burns, DNA mutations and structural impairments. Well, if anyone died because of this practice at least their feet were blissfully happy.
6. Arsenic in powder
In ancient Egypt women were preoccupied with their looks adding to their foundations, powders and fluids a mixture of arsenic, lead and copper. Now, don’t dare telling me that make-up is bad for my skin.
7. Radium flavoured tea
The initial idea of certain elements being radioactive led to a conclusion that it would be a waste not to utilize that feature. At the beginning of the 20th century marketers were urging people to reload their energy resources and increase vitality with the use of the following marvels of modern technology: ceramic jugs changing tap water into healing radium water, uranium blankets that reduced joint ache or even Vita Radium suppositories thanks to which men regained their vital forces.
8. Bacteria, honour, patients’ (well)-being
Up to the moment when microscope was invented, the idea that diseases could be caused and spread by micro-organisms was something of a novelty to scientists. There were some attempts to ascribe diseases to outer factors such as bad fluids or humors, but they were all pure guesswork. One of the first to acknowledge the association between hygiene maintenance and infections reduction was Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis. During his times one third of patients on obstetric wards died after labour due to contagious puerperal fever. Semmelweis came to the conclusion that such a high mortality might lie in the fact that doctors and medical students examining patients performed autopsies between deliveries. It was probable that they transmitted fractions of cadavers into women’s genital tracts. He recommended that all doctors should wash hands with chlorine solution that gave 2% decrease in the death rate.
Medical community wasn’t convinced though – doctors reckoned hand-washing was unnecessary and thought charges of causing death were insulting. Shortly after publishing his research, Semmelweis was totally discredited, succumbed to depression and finally died in psychiatric hospital. The cause of his death was wound infection he got while doing autopsy. He did not live to see that he has been hailed father of antisepsis.
9. Doped children
Painful teething, restless sleep, hyperactivity? None of this could threaten children born in the 19th century in UK and USA. What reached the peak of popularity then were special tranquillizers for toddlers, containing opium. Healing poppy syrups were efficient in dealing with sore gums and light sleep but, at the same time, caused addiction, coma and death. Parents, however, did not voice reservations about it.
You know, somebody once said “We learn from failure, not from success!”.