10 Rare Old Medicines That Had Horrific Side Effects
Medicine has come a long way from the “good old days” of garlic-filled masks and astringent herbal teas. Even in relatively recent times, drugs have been used which have horrific effects on the human body. But—and this is a big but—they can and often do work. At the time, they were the best we had, despite the bizarre ways that they could kill you.
Today’s “Big Pharma” has much more stringent regulations than in the early to mid-1900s. All the items on this list are taken from Grollman and Slaughter’s 12th revision of Cushny’s Pharmacology and Therapeutics, an amazing pharmacopoeia of unusual and bizarre old-world drugs.
In 1926, F. Hildebrandt tested a new drug on animals and found two primary clinically significant effects. In high doses, it caused epileptic-like convulsions. In more reasonable doses, it merely stimulated the heart and increased respiration in cases of depressant poisoning (i.e., too much chloroform).
Guess what physicians used it for primarily?
If you said “as an antidote to poisoning,” you would be wrong. (After all, we had pure stimulants for that.) Instead, in 1934, scientist Ladislas J. Meduna pioneered its use in humans to induce convulsions to treat mental illness.
His primary interest was in schizophrenia, for which Metrazol was the first officially recognized treatment. But its use in convulsive therapy expanded to other psychiatric disorders such as depression. In general, patients were sent to a hospital, received Metrazol, and waited for its rapid action to begin. Typically, patients could be discharged within a few hours.
It was considered to be an effective treatment for those diagnosed with psychoses lasting less than three years. At the time, the side effects of this treatment were limited but potentially horrendous. They included spinal fractures, tuberculosis, and brain damage. Luckily, Metrazol quickly fell out of fashion. It was replaced by the “much more efficient” electroconvulsive therapy, which has reduced physical side effects.
Despite its horror, Metrazol is still in use today, just not in hospitals. In labs, it is used to induce convulsions or anxiety in rodents to test treatments for similar disorders. There has also been a recent spike in interest surrounding its potential use in the treatment of Down syndrome, although it wouldn’t be curative.
As you might guess by the “ethanol” in the name, tribromoethanol is related to the wonder drink, alcohol. Tribromoethanol has very similar properties, but it is stronger and has a broader range of potential side effects. Cushny’s revised work states that Willstatter first synthesized it in 1923. Later, in 1926, Duisberg used it as an anesthetic.
Rectal administration is remarkably effective. Half the dose is absorbed within 10 minutes and 95 percent within 25 minutes. The effect is predictable: a deep sleep—typically lasting about two and a half hours.
However, there was just one tiny problem: It was almost impossible to alter the hypnotic state. Once you were under, no known drug at the time could wake you. For this reason, tribromoethanol was seldom used. It was just too difficult to control.
Other side effects included injury to the circulatory system, degeneration of the liver and kidneys, slowed metabolism (by around 15 percent), depleted glycogen stores, increased blood sugar levels, and even death.
These days, there are no clinically significant uses for the drug. Instead, it is used to sedate mice in laboratories.