The Bizarre History Of STD Treatments

by JR Thorpe
Wellcome Images

April is many things — a month that contains a wide variety of holidays including Easter, Passover, Earth Day, and two weeks of breaking out into a cold sweat over your taxes — but it is also STD Awareness Month. In our modern era, we may take it for granted that most STDs can be effectively treated by modern medicine; antibiotics can cure infections like gonorrhea or chlamydia, while antivirals can help immensely with illnesses like genital herpes. But this wasn't always so. While human beings throughout history seem to have dealt with sexually transmitted infections, actually effective treatments for STDs are a fairly new development.

Whether or not the STDs that now exist are the same as the ones that ancient cultures experienced, or if the diseases have evolved and appeared over the centuries, is a pretty intriguing puzzle. It's complicated by the fact that a lot of symptoms of STDs can also be attributed to other illnesses, and if ancient medical texts are imprecise, we have to simply guess. But there's a lot of evidence that people have been suffering from the same or similar sexually transmitted diseases, and searching for effective treatments, for a very long time, and to get to the effective medicine we have now, early medicine had to take many ineffective stabs in the dark — including eating powdered cow horn and being whacked in the genitals with a book.

Please note: the historical treatments listed below do not work. If you think you may have a sexually transmitted disease, please see a doctor, get tested, and if you need it, get proper medical treatment.

The Ancient Egyptians: Sandal Oil And Cow Horn

Wellcome Collection

One of the tricky things about discussing STD treatments in history is figuring out whether or not ancient cultures were in fact discussing STDs, or something else. Without modern diagnostic divisions, we're not really able to be completely sure. But according to some scholars, texts from ancient Egypt — particularly medical papyri, like the Ebers Papyrus — show a distinct tendency to try and help people who'd contracted diseases that seemed linked to sexual contact.

Some of Egyptian medicine was based in spells and incantations designed to drive out the "demons" causing the illness, but there's evidence that ancient Egyptians also sought practical solutions to ease suffering. In their "History Of Venereal Diseases From Antiquity To The Renaissance," Professor Franjo Gruber and several other Croatian doctors explain that the Ebers Papyrus mentions using sandal oil to soothe a urethral infection that might have been an STD.

And there were other options: medical historian Judit Forrai explains that the Egyptians treated discharges from genital "problems" with a variety of salves and ointments, made with herbs, garlic, and perhaps a little tinge of powdered cow horn.

The Ancient Greeks: Weights And A Hot Iron

The ancient Greeks and Romans were, according to Forrai, well aware of the potential risks of contracting STDs, particularly when going to sex workers, and were in the habit of douching and washing genitals in oil to try and prevent the issue. There were, however, more extreme methods.

The physician Solanus of Ephesus took the general view that any body that had got itself infected with a sexually transmitted disease was clearly physically weak and needed building up, so he recommended that anybody with gonorrhea (which he thought was brought on by an excess of semen or fluid) have lead weights strapped to their body to "help" their recovery.

But if you want to truly understand what the era's medicine was like, we've got to discuss herpes treatment. Records of herpes infections date as far back as ancient Greece (the name itself is Greek), but nobody, perhaps, has taken as dim or painful a view of the resulting ulcers than the Roman medical author Aulus Cornelius Calsus, who wrote one of the most famous medical treatises of the first century AD. His idea? Cauterize all of the sores with a hot iron. Yeesh.

Everyone, For Centuries: Mercury

Before we knew it as deeply poisonous to humans, mercury was one of the most widespread early treatments for syphilis, or, as it was once called, "Cupid's disease." There's evidence of its use in ancient China; syphilis seems to have been referenced in a Chinese medical work from 2637 BC, and the author (who was an emperor) recommended mercury as a treatment. But applying mercury to the skin or in other forms was a major part of syphilis treatment in Europe for a very long time, used by everybody from noble physicians to armies.

Alongside mercury, though, Europeans from around the 1500s started to use something else to treat it: holy wood or lignum vitae, a flowering tree found in the West Indies and believed to have truly mythic properties. It was widely recommended in medical treatises and hugely popular, but, unfortunately, completely without actual medicinal properties (except as a really mild laxative).

1200s Italy: Leeches And Urethral Irrigation

Roger of Salerno occupies a deservedly famous place in medical history. Writing in the 1200s in Italy, he produced one of the first practical surgery guides, and even though the recommendations are often completely daft or horrific by modern standards (particularly considering there was no anesthetic), he was very up-to-date for his time. At one point, he turns his knowledge to sexually transmitted diseases, and makes the recommendation that people suffering from them should either have leeches attached to them for bleeding or go through what Professor Gruber delicately calls "urethral irrigation," a process that no doubt involved an unsterilized instrument going into the urethra without any pain relief. I'd take the leeches.

Medieval Europe: Lead And Virgins

Remember Solanus of Ephesus and his lead weights? His idea, as harebrained as it was, wasn't exactly lost in the mists of time. Medieval European medical writers tended to follow their classical forebears pretty closely, so lead, along with purgatives, steam baths and other treatments, shows up in medieval treatments for sexually transmitted infections. In one stifling treatment, doctors advised that a patient be covered in strips of cloth that had first been dipped in a liquid containing lead. "Sweating cloths" were pretty common, but they were likely not going to help anyone's health.

There were also some pretty despicable beliefs circulating up until the Renaissance period about a "virgin cure": the idea that you could get rid of a sexually transmitted disease by having sex with a virgin, because their chastity made them resistant. This led to all kinds of horrific and even criminal behavior, from child abuse to a peculiar rumor in 1500s Italy that you could cure yourself by sleeping with an African woman. Not exactly wonderful.

Old France (Maybe): Slamming A Book On The Genitals

Gonorrhea, if you've ever been unlucky enough to encounter it, involves pus in the genitals, and one potential theory for how it came to be called "the clap" comes from an older treatment: smacking the poor infected genitals hard with objects, in order to try and get the pus out. Yeesh.

The recommendation must have been excruciating, and there's no clear sign that it is indeed the origin of the "clap" moniker (it may also have come from an old French word for brothels), but it's an enduring sign that we should be deeply thankful for modern medicine.

1900s: Arsenic, Silver And Fumigation

The 19th century brought a new age of attempts to try and find better treatments for STDs, including gonorrhea. Unfortunately, penicillin and antibacterial agents were still a while off, but in the meantime, doctors came up with a series of ideas that, looked at from our current cultural vantage point, may make you feel slightly ill.

Mercury treatments remained pretty popular, but in their search for something more useful, doctors also created metallic mixtures: silver and gold often featured heavily, as did arsenic and antimony. They tried silver nitrate (which is toxic), fumigation techniques for syphilis (which must have been...not terribly relaxing), and the Indonesian peppers cubebs (which are not toxic, but also not very useful at all). The tendency to try and find miraculous cures in exotic locales didn't really die out until the 20th century.

1900s England: Compulsory Jail Time (But Only For Women)

19th century England was deeply concerned with sexually transmitted diseases, particularly with how they affected the health of troops and navy men. The problem was that they decided the spread of STDs was entirely down to prostitutes, and proceeded to create a series of laws, the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s, that criminalized them and their work. A woman could be forcibly examined for an STD, without her consent, if a police officer even vaguely suspected she was a prostitute. If she was found to be suffering from one, she was hospitalized in a "lockhouse" for treatment, and if she refused, she was put in a prison for up to a year, with no potential to earn money and no way to get out.

The law was repealed 10 years later, after campaigners yelled loudly about how abysmal it was — but it's still an enduring reminder of how far we've come in the treatment of STDs, and also of how cruel, shaming, and thoughtless many people can get the second the topic of sexually transmitted diseases comes up. Keep it in mind the next time you hear people using shaming or moralizing language when talking about STDs — and know that those attitudes, just like trying to treat STDs by hitting yourself in the genitals, belong firmly in the past.