The history of medicine is filled with wild stories of bizarre treatments methods and medical procedures that aimed to make people feel better. Some of the stranger treatments of old-time medicine would turn out to be useful; while cautery—heating an iron stick on hot coals and then pressing it onto a person’s body—didn’t end up curing broken hearts when the rod was pressed against the patient’s chest, the practice was a forerunner to electric surgical instruments. And while doctors were misguided in prescribing the poison arsenic to treat syphilis and skin conditions, a form of the chemical has been used to treat acute promyelocytic leukemia.
It also took a long time to figure out how to use the technology safely. A French physician, Dr. Maxime Menard, had to have his finger amputated when he developed cancer from frequent exposure to radiation while manning an X-ray machine. (In a striking juxtaposition to modern medicine, Menard smoked a cigarette while his offending finger was surgically removed). When Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered the X-ray in 1895, the New York Times was so skeptical that the paper referred to the medical breakthrough as the “alleged discovery of how to photograph the invisible”.