Poisonous STD Remedies from the Past

As with all facets of the trial and error-based practice of medicine, there have been almost as many errors as there have been trials when it came to treating VD. Two of the worst treatments involved mercury, arsenic, and syringes (and you know they stuck it exactly where you think they did). These old-timey remedies make a metal Q-Tip in the urethra and a shot of penicillin look like a fun Saturday afternoon.

Since doctors knew even less about mercury than they did about STDs in the past, it shouldn’t seem as surprising as it does that the toxic substance was used to treat herpes, syphilis, and gonorrhea for hundreds of years.

The poisonous metal was administered to the unlucky victims of VD in a number of increasingly awful ways. It was used in ointments applied to open sores caused by syphilis and herpes, taken orally, and evaporated so the fumes could be inhaled or “fumigated” into the body through the skin. Best of all, it was even injected directly into the urethra to combat gonorrhea. Vials of mercury and syringes were found amongst the wreckage of the doomed English warship Mary Rose. The crewmembers unfortunate enough to be diagnosed with gonorrhea might have been relieved when the ship sank during a battle with the French in 1545.

It wasn’t until the 1800’s when physicians started to think that mercury might be doing a bit more harm than good. Antibiotics had yet to be discovered, so their version of a less-toxic cure was none other than arsenic-based medicines.

Dangerously high levels of the poisonous compound were found in several medicines used to treat syphilis during the 19th and early 20th centuries. There are medicines today that are made up of trace amounts of arsenic, but the STD treatments of those days were so filled with the toxin that they weren't much less toxic than mercury. Scientists continued to produce medicines with decreasing levels of arsenic until the use of antibiotics was discovered as the best method.

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