During the early 16th century, cannons and early firearms (primarily the arquebus and musket) created a new problem for battlefield surgeons. Long familiar with injuries that killed from blood loss or infection, the surgeons of the early 1500s had little idea how to deal with the shock wave and black powder-induced injuries caused by lead shot.
Doctors initially believed that gunpowder coated the projectiles with a poisonous residue that caused necrosis in human tissues (post-hoc reasoning, but in its way not all that bad a guess). Once they “discovered” the cause of their patients’ rapid deterioration, the surgeons decided they needed to remove the poison – by cauterizing the wound with boiling oil.
Talk about the cure being worse than the disease…
The procedure soon became a standard method of battlefield triage for black powder and lead shot wounds, and might have continued indefinitely but for the observations of a young French doctor named Ambroise Pare. While treating battlefield casualties in 1536, Pare ran out of hot oil. Some time later, he noted that patients whose wounds were dressed without the application of boiling oil recovered faster and “expreienced considerably less inflammation” than those who received the standard treatment. Pare’s observations put the first nail in the coffin of the “poisoned gunpowder theory” – and prompted him to treat such wounds with an ancient solution of egg yolk, rose oil and turpentine. Pare didn’t know that turpentine is an antiseptic, but he definitely noticed it beat the inflammatory properties of boiling oil by a significant margin.
Today’s shiny dinglehopper: boiling oil as a treatment for gunshot wounds.
Kids, let’s not try this at home.
Know a bizare cure that might not live up to its reputation? Hop in the comments and share.
Curious about the history of firearms and black powder? I recommend Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards & Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World by Jack Kelly (Basic Books, NY 2004)