Move over, Dr. Frankenstein! Five of history’s scariest medical devices

Before you head off to your Halloween routine, whether it’s trick-or-treating with your kids or popping Rosemary’s Baby in the DVD player and going to town on a bag of candy, check out these terrifying medical devices to really give you a fright night.

The Victorians, of course, had a firm grasp on all things medical and creepy, but don’t worry. The 20th century still made a showing. (A note on dentistry and amputation: It goes without saying that saws and dental keys are scary. So I left them out. Also, I pretty much stuck with items from 1750 or later, but there are plenty of options from earlier cultures to choose from as well.)

Iron lung

from the National Museum of Health and Science

from the National Museum of Health and Science

Imagine your head and body being in separate “rooms” for a week. This list wouldn’t be complete without the iron lung, i.e. a tank respirator. Used to keep polio patients breathing artificially (typically for a week or two), this device ran about $1,500 in 1930, according to the Smithsonian. (At the time, it was about the cost of a house.) Some hospitals had rooms full. More from the Smithsonian:

The machine was powered by an electric motor with two vacuum cleaners. The pump changed the pressure inside a rectangular, airtight metal box, pulling air in and out of the lungs.

Inventor John Emerson had refined Drinker’s device and cut the cost nearly in half. Inside the tank respirator, the patient lay on a bed (sometimes called a “cookie tray”) that could slide in and out of the cylinder as needed. The side of the tank had portal windows so attendants could reach in and adjust limbs, sheets or hot packs.


Tobacco smoke enema

from BC Medical Journal

from BC Medical Journal

Yes, there is an enema even scarier than the glass rectal tubes in  Call the Midwife. Ever had smoke blown up your arse? Not like this. According to the BC Medical Journal, this therapeutic technique was used to treat all sorts of problems — from colds to typhoid fever. But it started with a man’s belief he could treat “half-drowned London citizens who were pulled from the Thames River.”

Initially the “pipe smoker London Medic” inserted an enema tube with rubber tubing attachments into the victim and blew smoke into the rectum. This was erroneously thought by the practitioners to accomplish two things; first, warming the drowned person, and second, stimulating respiration. Artificial respiration was used if the tobacco smoke enema failed.

But the stylish practice wasn’t just unfortunate for the victim, erm, patient.

Before bellows were included in the resuscitation kit, the results could be disastrous to the tobacco smoke blower. If the practitioner or medic inadvertently inhaled (instead of blew) during a coughing spell, some rice water stools of the cholera flagellates could be aspirated and swallowed. The practitioner’s demise would be due to a cough, dehydration and diarrhea.

According to the article, when nicotine was discovered to be fatal to the heart in 1811, the practice was stopped. Although 200 years later, some of us are still breathing the stuff in.


Creepiest form of already creepy old bloodletting methods: Leeches edition

leeches jar from antique scientifica

So technically leeches aren’t a medical device, but they were used for bloodletting, a common 19th century practice. I couldn’t bring myself to post a picture of the leeches on a patient (though, trust me, you can find them easily). Above is a home for one phlebotomist’s leech minions. According to Medtech’s Blog, “Francois-Joseph-Victor Broussais, a French physician, would reportedly recommend his patients be treated with as many as 50 leeches at a time.” Yikes!


20th Century Torture: Dr. Freeman’s Leucotome

Smithsonian leucotome

a leucotome, from the Smithsonian

This kind of leucotome was used most famously by Dr. Walter Freeman for lobotomies. It is not only one of the scariest, but also one of the most disturbing, medical devices created in recent history.  According to The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice:

The leucotome was inserted into the patient’s tear duct and then lightly hammered into the thin layer of bone with a surgical mallet. Next, it was pushed into the frontal lobe of the patient’s brain about 1.5 inches and moved back and forth. This process was then repeated in the other eye to complete the frontal lobotomy. Freeman performed nearly 3,500 lobotomies over the course of his career using this method before his medical license was revoked in 1967.


Electric Shock Machine

from Skinner & Hyde

from Skinner & Hyde

What may appear like an outdated music box is actually a Victorian-era electric shock machine. According to Skinner & Hyde’s medical antiques site, “these machines were invented as a ‘Shocking’ remedy to cure virtually all manner of ailments, from nervous dispositions to sexual deviances.” Want one to take home? Sorry, the one pictured above is sold.

Of course, electroconvulsive therapy is currently in use for severe depression (most recently depicted in  Homeland). It’s also not as makeshift or cure-all as this mobile machine.


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