Fun Fact: On Fire’s Ability to ‘Treat’ an Initial Injury, Leaving a Potentially Less Bad Burn
In the 4th century BCE, Hippocrates, the founding father of medicine, established that the best cure for hemorrhoids was through the application of the curative properties of fire.
In the 4th century BCE, Hippocrates, the founding father of medicine, established that the best cure for hemorrhoids was through the application of the curative properties of fire. He observed that by placing a hot iron against hemorrhoids, they could be cauterized to a point at which they were no longer hemorrhoids.
Hippocrates described the appropriate approach to the cautery method in his writings thusly, “When the cautery is applied, the patient’s head and hands should be held so that he…should cry out, for this will make the rectum project out more.”
Following this process, Hippocrates recommended applying a poultice consisting of lentils and vegetables to the anus in order to promote healing of the burn caused by the cautery. Yet, for Hippocrates, such burns were a mere adverse effect of the panacea that was the intense heat of fire when applied to the body.
“As many conditions as drugs do not cure, the knife cures; as many as a knife does not cure, fire cures; as many as fire does not cure, these have to be considered incurable,” Hippocrates wrote.
This theory of the broadly curable nature of fire continued with Celsus in the 1st century CE, who also held a similar “fire cures all” approach to medicine. “All afflictions,” Celsus wrote, “when inveterate, scarce admit a cure without cauterization.”
For Celsus, cauterization was used to cure everything from headaches to coughs. For headaches, a common cure was to place a long iron rod into the fireplace until it was red-hot, and then place the rod against the patient’s temple to alleviate the headache; this method was termed actual cautery. For coughs, a similar method of treatment was applied, except the hot iron would be placed against the throat or the chest to best target the source of the malady.
Another method of treatment was referred to as potential cautery; for this method, flesh is burned with either acid or boiling oil. To cure headaches with potential cautery, oil would be heated in a flask over fire until bubbling and then the hot oil would be poured slowly onto the patient’s forehead.
However, due to the crude tools used at the time, application of either burning rod or burning oil would not always go according to plan. Sometimes the skin would stick to the rod, causing a rod-shaped wound to be opened upon the removal of the hot iron.
Another unfortunate occurrence would be if the hot iron was not heated to a threshold at which it would be capable to actually cauterize anything. When this would occurr, the 18th century surgeon James Younger explained that the process, rather unfortunately, “begets nothing but pain and anguish.”
Additionally, the potential cautery method, as the name describes, provides the “potential” for cauterizing a wound, as the process of dripping oil on someone’s skin does not necessarily allow for a high level of precision. During wartime, for example, potential cautery would be used to quickly cauterize wounds in order to speed up the cautery process from patient to patient, which meant that the oil dripping process was conducted rather hastily.
In the 16th century, the French surgeon Ambroise Paré explained that when cauterizing soldiers using this potential cautery method, the oil would drip onto healthy tissue as well, causing “pains, inflammations, and other horrid symptoms” to emerge in unison with the original injury.
During this time, people also believed gunpowder was poisonous, leading them to conclude that some amount of cauterization was necessary for the poison to not spread. However, Paré observed after running out of oil for cauterization that not cauterizing gunshot wounds led to better results than when he cauterized them. This led him to conclude that gunshot wounds were, in fact, not poisonous, and that cautery was not as helpful for their treatment as previously believed.
Yet, despite Paré’s observations, many physicians still believed in the curative power of fire on into the 19th century, as even during the American Civil War, cautery was used for both gunshot wounds and amputations in order to quickly treat soldiers’ injuries.
During the same period, the medical theory of counter-irritation began to flourish, which heavily relied on cautery for its irritative properties. The counter-irritation theory asserted that if a physician provides irritation to the body elsewhere from the source of the patient’s pain, the irritation is drawn away, allowing the original area to heal more effectively.
Many anecdotes of the use of counter-irritation during this time have been described in regard to their benefit for curing varying ailments. One such anecdote describes the use of counter-irritation for the “frenzies,” which was believed at the time to be due to brain irritation. To cure this ailment, the physician used “the casual application of fire to the lower parts,” which he observed seemed to allow the patient to be less specifically ailed by the frenzies and more generally focused on the application of the fire.
Another anecdote of the successful application of counter-irritation was in 1882, for a schoolteacher who was troubled with malaise, violent headaches, and crippling insomnia. The physician A. R. Carmen of New York decided to use a method that was touted at the time for its efficacy: applying a series of burns down the patient’s spine using a hot iron.
Following this counter-irritation treatment, Carmen found that the schoolteacher experienced a miraculous recovery and went back to work immediately. However, contemporary medical professionals, looking back at such miraculous recoveries, have considered that other factors may have been at play.
After the application of a hot iron to their person, a patient may have become incentivized to not receive another cautery cure following the first. For this reason, the appearance of being fully cured could be understood as one of the best ways to avoid this, which may have encouraged patients to appear as though they had miraculously recovered.
Kang L, Pedersen N. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. New York, NY: Workman Publishing; 2017.