“One of the most respected medical journals in the world is named after the main tool used in bloodletting: Lancet. Bloodletting never worked. In fact, it was terribly dangerous—just ask George Washington—but it continued to be prescribed for influenza into the first decades of the twentieth century. And not just by fringe practitioners. It was recommended by military doctors who were on the front lines during World War I and saw another enemy—a microbial one—outflanking the ranks. What’s more, these doctors wrote about their experiences of bloodletting in important medical journals, including, poetically, the Lancet. ...
“Two years later, at the peak of the flu pandemic, other British military physicians reported bloodletting their patients, too, only this time they reported that it worked, at least in some cases. It wasn’t only the British who were still bleeding their patients in the twentieth century. In 1915 Heinrich Stern, a physician in New York, published his Theory and Practice of Bloodletting. While Stern was critical of bloodletting for most medical conditions, he did believe it could be helpful in some instances. ‘I am an advocate of the conditional employment of this ancient method,’ he wrote, ‘and I believe it unnecessary to state that I do not consider it a panacea.’ Stern was somewhat ambivalent in recommending it as a primary therapy for the flu, but almost a decade later, in America’s leading medical journal, doctors were still advocating bloodletting to treat pneumonia, convinced—without a shred of evidence—that it would get results when ‘our more conservative methods fail.’
“Bloodletting to cure influenza eventually went out of fashion in the twentieth century, but other wild and suspicious treatments were still part of the medical repertoire. In 1913 a small book with a black cover was published by a doctor named Arthur Hopkirk. Its title was etched in gold: Influenza: Its History, Nature, Cause and Treatment. Hopkirk recommended a series of bizarre treatments for influenza. For fevers, the good doctor recommended ‘a purge,’ meaning a laxative, such as the delightfully named ‘effervescent magnesia.’ Severe cases of flu required a heavy-duty laxative like calomel, which is made with mercury chloride. Mercury, of course, is highly toxic. ...
“The best medicine at the time was aspirin, but it was new, misunderstood, and often given in fatal doses. ... Symptoms of an aspirin overdose start with ringing in the ears, followed by sweating, dehydration, and rapid breathing. A severe overdose results in fluids pouring into the lungs, mimicking the actual symptoms of the flu. Fluids then enter the brain and it swells, resulting in confusion, coma, convulsions, and death. People were not just dying of the flu during the Spanish flu pandemic; they were also dying of aspirin overdoses. During the pandemic, aspirin was widely used, but many physicians seemed oblivious to its dangers. In Delhi, senior physicians were concerned that younger doctors in Bombay and Madras were misusing the drug, while in London one physician who practiced from Harley Street, London’s fanciest medical address, encouraged its use. He recommended that the patient be ‘drenched with aspirin at a dose of twenty grains an hour for twelve hours, and then every two hours thereafter.’ That is six times greater than the maximum safe dose. It’s an insane amount of aspirin. Because it was given in highly toxic doses, it may have been the aspirin that killed so many during the pandemic, and not the influenza itself. This is an unsettling thought, but it might help explain the deaths of a disproportionate number of otherwise healthy young adults—the very population that today rarely suffers from serious flu infections” (Jeremy Brown’s fascinating and highly educational book Influenza: The Hundred Year Hunt to Cure the Deadliest Disease in History).
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