The Craziest Treatments For Addiction From History
Equisine – A Vaccine From Horse Antibodies
Near the turn of the 20th century, two scientists, emboldened by Louis Pasteur, wondered if they could make a vaccine to prevent alcoholism. Moreover, they surmised that if vaccinated beings were able to fight off infections through injected antibodies, why not see if people could be vaccinated against alcoholism in the same way?
So, they decided that a good way to go about this would be to administer alcohol to horses until they became dependent, and to then inject their blood, which presumably had built up antibodies to alcohol, into other horses.
A result, the scientists claimed that the “vaccinated” horses refused to drink alcohol. So, a California-based company then attempted to isolate the antibodies from the horse blood, and apply it to the severed skin of alcoholics. This they did, but unfortunately, the treatment did not work.
Aversion Therapy – With A Live Eel
Aversion therapy can be effective if applied correctly. For example, Antabuse is a drug that causes persons to become violently ill when alcohol is consumed. It’s not a super popular treatment, but it’s worked for some.
But around the turn of the century, methods were not so refined. Some doctors administered electric shocks or induced vomiting, while others advocated for nauseating or terrifying elements to be added to drinks, such as rotting fruit. mole blood, sparrow feces, and powdered pork. And – perhaps the most horrifying of all – a live eel.
Sterilization – Having Kids Will Make It Worse
A form of eugenics, of sorts, sterilization was an attempt to stop alcoholism, mental illness, and the resulting bad behavior from reaching subsequent generations. In addition, one popular theory held that these problems got worse with transmission.
The theory spurred politicians to propose legislation that would effectively prevent alcoholics from having children through sterilization or the forbidding of marriage. By the early 1920’s, more than a dozen U.S. states had passed such laws. While many policies were considered “voluntary sterilization”, institutionalized alcoholics, especially women, were pressured to have the procedure.
The Keeley “Cure” – Try Some Arsenic
In 1879, Civil War surgeon Leslie Keeley stumbled upon what he thought was a great treatment for addiction. Indeed, there were some good elements – he utilized a month-long residential treatment center, and emphasized healthy eating habits, fresh air, and exercise.
However, he also administered injections and tonics that were actually kind of poisonous. They included bichloride, coca, morphine, strychnine, arsenic, nightshade, and other powerful substances. Originally, he claimed a 95% cure rate, but that was struck down when former patients began to report terrible side effects, including mental illness, insanity, relapse, and even death.
Morphine, Because Everyone Is Doing It
While we now know that morphine is incredibly addictive, in the late 19th century is was popularly used in a variety of treatments for addiction – alcoholism included. Harm reduction is a term well-known in the addiction treatment field. Some call it trading one drug for another, but others see the benefit in transferring dependence to the lesser of two evils.
This was the general idea when it came to morphine vs. alcohol. Doctors also believed that morphine was an addiction less likely to be transferred to the next generation. This idea may have a been a precursor to methadone treatment, in which opioid addicts can often avoid drunk cravings and enjoy improved functioning.
Unfortunately, treating alcoholism with morphine did not garner the same result, and they just ended up with a bunch of morphine addicts.
Serum Therapy – Experimenting On Humans Is Fun
Most rational people would say that creating blisters on a patient’s stomach, removing the fluid with a hypodermic needle, then re-administering the fluid into the person’s arm was neither sane nor humane. But this is one of the treatments for addiction that scientists were experimenting with at the Colorado State Penitentiary in the 1950’s.
Thankfully, this practice was soon deemed to be ineffective.
The Frontal Lobotomy (Rather Than A Bottle In Front Of Me)
Tom Waits once mused “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” Well, in the first half of the 20th century there might have been a few folks that could relate to this more than they should have.Indeed, this is probably one of the worst treatments for addiction ever devised by man.
In the first part of the 20th century, the lobotomy was a rare but well-known procedure, and was used to cure other psychiatric problems as well. In fact, there are only nine recorded cases of this occurring, although that number could be higher. Regardless, there wasn’t much evidence that the procedure helped reduce drug cravings or withdrawal symptoms.
And certainly, lobotomies are risky procedures that can be very damaging to the brain, and eventually, the scientific community found them to be ineffective, destructive, and told everyone else to knock it off. More recently, however, Chinese physicians attempted a similar procedure, in which they attempted to impair the pleasure center of the brain. In 2004, this procedure was banned by China’s Ministry of Health.
LSD – Addiction Is A Bad Trip
In the latter part of the 20th century, the use of psychedelics and hallucinogens were considered as possible treatments for addiction. At one time, both LSD and psilocybin mushrooms were also tested out therapeutically for schizophrenia, cancer anxiety, and alcoholism.
But as opposed to other crazy ideas, this one may have gotten some traction. A meta-analysis of old studies conducted by a Norwegian university found that 59% of those given LSD in experiments from the 50’s and 60’s subsequently reported less alcohol abuse. That was opposed to 38% of subjects who were given a placebo. It’s not a huge difference, but it does at least reveal that most patients probably weren’t totally messed up by it.
Corporal Punishment – Another Form of Aversion Therapy?
I’d like to say that something as seemingly barbaric as beating the behinds of addicts with willow branches is a long ago thing of the past, but sadly, it is not so. In 2013, The Siberian Times reported that this treatment via “medical spankings” was still alive and well in Russia, inspired by old English schoolmasters and monks who inflicted pain upon themselves.
There is a method to their madness, however. Siberian doctors say that the whippings release endorphins, making the addicts feel better after the beatings, and therefore, less likely to turn back to drugs or alcohol. Still, it certainly sounds like one of the most violent treatments for addiction than currently exists.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology