Body humors and not washing hands. (Part 1-1 of Weird Historical Medical Beliefs and Todays Medical Quackery)

Would you smear a pile of fresh cow shit on your kid to ease swelling? Or how about letting someone drill a hole in your skull to remove evil spirits? Would you ground up mummies and snort the powder like lines of blow?

Let’s take a disturbing stroll down history lane to explore some of humanity’s many bizarre medical beliefs and practices. And then after you feel great for not living in the WTF-Era of nonscientific medicine, let’s take a look at the popular market of snake-oil medicine and medical quackery still alive and well.

Part 1: Weird Medical beliefs in history

Part 2: Psuedoscientific medical practices today

Part 3: Today’s Medical Pseudoscientific Talking heads

(Note links to public-friendly media are provided, but academic sources are cited for more detailed information).


Part 1-1: Body humors and not washing hands

Body humors

Before the germ theory of disease, there was humorism, started by the famous Greek physician, Hippocrates. Though this was humorously wrong (bud-bum-tss), this was one of the first attempts to explain illness in a sort-of systematic way. According to this explanation, the balance of four “fluids,” blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile), and melancholy (black bile), controlled your health and temperament (Sigerist, 1987). So if you were in a bad mood, you need to adjust these fluids. I’ll stick to altering my fluids with beer.


Not washing hands

Humorism was disproved with the germ theory of disease. This is the scientifically-backed theory that shows germs (viruses and bacteria) are the cause of infectious diseases. It was developed only recently in the mid-to-late 1800s by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, with significant contributions from Joseph Lister (who tracked the spread of cholera and drinking water) and Ignaz Semmelweis (Lederberg, 2000).download

In the mid-1800s, doctors would do autopsies on cadavers and then go to deliver a child without washing their hands. Mothers and their children often died as a result, and people had no idea why. Ignaz Semmelweis was a doctor who discovered this (now obvious) correlation and championed washing hands before surgery. Ironically, and frustratingly,  this evidence-based revelation was met with hostile criticism and pushback. It took a while for doctors to change their paradigm. This is a social psychological phenomenon known as the Semmelweis reflex (Mortell et al., 2013), which is similar to the Galileo Fallacy.

To Part 1-2

Carpe Datum and Semper Sci,

Sgt Scholar, out.

Please help us by liking, commenting, sharing, and following!

Do you want to help support Sgt Scholar? Patrons of Sgt Scholar enjoy benefits such as early access to articles, helping decide the topics of coming articles, and more. Click here to support Sgt Scholar:


Lederberg, J. (2000). Infectious History. Science, 288(5464), 287.

Mortell, M., Balkhy, H. H., Tannous, E. B., & Jong, M. T. (2013). Physician ‘defiance’ towards hand hygiene compliance: Is there a theory-practice-ethics gap? Journal of the Saudi Heart Association, 25(3), 203-208.

Sigerist, H. E. (1987). A History of Medicine: Early Greek, Hindu, and Persian medicine. Oxford University Press.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s