The timeline of medical history is riddled with things that, in hindsight, seem downright bizarre: Yogurt, for example, was once heralded as a way to stave off old age. The cure for neurasthenia, a 19th-century diagnosis for burnout, was to go frolic in the woods for a while and “rediscover your cowboy roots” (this one was men-only). Our forefathers turned to heroin for coughs, opium for asthma, electric-shock belts for impotence, and dog poop for sore throats. And in Atlas Obscura earlier this week, Natalie Zarelli highlighted another one for the list: until alarmingly recently, bedbugs were considered “a medical cure-all,” used to treat everything from cataracts to kidney stones to the common cold.
Physicians’ love affair with bedbugs, she wrote, began thousands of years ago: De Materia Medica, an ancient Roman medical text, prescribed bedbug stew for fevers; for eye infections, a poultice of crushed bedbugs, salt, and breast milk. And “the book would became the precursor to western pharmacology and influenced medicine for the next 1,500 years,” Zarelli wrote, “with some of its bedbug cures surviving in Europe for centuries.” In the 1500s, people ate beans stuffed with bedbugs to cure malaria; in the 1600s, they mixed them with tortoise blood to heal snakebites; in the 1700s, the smell of bedbugs was thought to ease “female hysteria.”
By that point, though, their perceived magic was beginning to fade, overshadowed by concerns about hygiene. “People were examining their world with microscopes, and the upper classes began to use cleanliness to distance themselves from the lower classes,” Zarelli wrote, and “[i]n the late 19th century, Pacific Medical and Surgical Journal writers criticized old-school remedies, saying they ‘can see nothing very extra ordinary in such demonstrations consequent on swallowing a bed bug.’” Today, with the exception of a handful of fringe folk remedies, bedbug treatments are a thing of the past — but there’s still no cure, unfortunately, for that itchy feeling you get from reading about them.