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Health misconceptions of the 18th-century range from understandable to totally baffling and shocking. Women would often bear the brunt of these misconceptions, often because they have health and wellness issues specific to their gender. Luckily, we’ve come a long way since the 18th century in terms of medical savvy and research, though some the misconceptions we still have today may surprise you. 

Misconception #1: Using Mercury for Teething Babies

When a child is teething, you know it — they’re in pain and will become fussy, and it’s common for a teething baby to cry a lot. In the 1700s, a common treatment for teething was to rub a teething powder into the baby’s gums. This powder often contained calomel, which was believed to cure the pain. However, the powder also often contained mercury, which was believed to be curative as well, though we now know better. Mercury works as a violent laxative, which is why it was believed to rid the body of ailments. Mercury could have much worse results, including physical and mental collapse.

Misconception #2: Misunderstanding STDs

During the 1700s, one of the biggest health issues was STDs. Chlamydia, genital herpes, gonorrhea, and syphilis were some of the most prominent STDs of the time. One problem doctors faced was telling one STD from another. Also, there wasn’t much known about the cause, spread, or treatment of STDs.


Gonorrhea was especially perplexing, as the symptoms only were apparent in men. Also, doctors thought that gonorrhea and syphilis were the same disease in different stages. While condoms were available, they weren’t used often, as doctors and the public didn’t know for sure if STDs were actually spread through sex. Also, while lambskin condoms could prevent pregnancy, they didn’t necessarily prevent STDs, so using them could still be ineffective.


Some of these misconceptions are similar to the misconceptions we have today. For example, some people still believe that if you have an STD, you can tell — however, just like in the past, some STDs don’t show symptoms in men and women in the same way. It’s also believed that you can’t get an STD if you wear a condom. However, while safe sex reduces the risk for contracting an STD, it’s not 100% effective.

Misconception #3: Labeling Women as Hysterical

During the 18th century, hysteria was a catch-all term that was used for women who became emotional or nervous, reported hallucinations, or had sexual urges. While you might think that the term “hysteria” was dropped long ago, it remained an American Psychiatric Association term until the 1950s, though it’s meaning changed through the years. Still, it’s difficult for women to get away from the labels of “crazy” and “hysterical” even in the 21st century.


The belief was that hysteria was caused by a wandering womb, meaning the womb moved up to the brain area. One cure for hysteria was massage of the genitals, which was thought to cure the hysteria when the woman would reach orgasm. The vibrator, a product of the 19th century, was a tool used to make this type of massage — and thus the cure for hysteria — more attainable. There was a clear lack of understanding about the issues ailing women.


There were other beliefs about what caused “hysteria”. For example, one idea was that hysteria was caused by the poor air of a big city, as well as a wild social life. It was also thought that while hysteria could impact both men and women, women were more susceptible to it because they were considered irritable and lazy. Another belief was that patients who had hysteria could be treated by the magnetism of the hands placed over the body to interact with the body’s fluids. Of course, this was simply a suggestion (one that eventually had a part in the development of hypnotism).

Misconception #4: Prescribing Women With a Rest Cure

During the 1800s, a common diagnosis for women was neurasthenia, which translates to “nerve weakness.” The symptoms of neurasthenia were anxiety, insomnia, depression, and migraines, and it was described as either a nervous breakdown or nervous illness. The prescription for women suffering from neurasthenia was a “rest cure,” which meant not doing any physical work, getting massages, and (perhaps most baffling of all) being force-fed food. In contrast, a man exhibiting similar symptoms was told to bond with other males, hunt, or go cattle-roping.


Advancements in health haven’t just meant better treatment for ailments but also an increased life expectancy. Compared to 300 years ago, life expectancy has tripled. However, as time goes on, new research tends to disprove even modern misconceptions. While it’s comical and perhaps disheartening to look back at what people believed in the 18th century, we may eventually look at today’s beliefs the same way.