Erectile dysfunction (ED) is a term that most people will be familiar with – Viagra (Or Sildenafil) has pulled in tens of billions in revenue since it debuted in 1998. With this sudden explosion of interest in ED treatment, you may be forgiven for thinking that ED is a modern man’s problem. However, ED has been an issue for as long as men have had penises – which means there have been some strange attempts at treatment over the years!
Attempts to treat ED date back well over 1,000 years, with the earliest recorded mention of erectile issues originating from 8th Century India. Sadly, the mistaken belief among doctors at the time was that ED was caused by having sex with “undesirable” women.
Treatments included many bizarre concoctions, one of which was to boil clarified butter with the eggs or testes of alligators, mice, frogs or sparrows. Unbelievably, it then gets weirder. The advice proceeds: “by lubricating the sole of the feet with this, a man would be able to visit a woman with undiminished vigour, as long as he would not touch the ground with his feet”! It’s not clear if touching the ground breaks the magical properties of the concoction, or just makes too much of a mess on the carpet.
Other Ancient civilisations didn’t fare much better. The men of Ancient Rome and Greece wore talismans of rooster and goat genitalia, believing they would serve as an aphrodisiac. Later, in the 13th century, the German Scientist Albertus Magnus recommended ingesting roasted wolf penis as a remedy for impotence. Strangely, none of these wacky cures seem to have caught on just yet – maybe testicle necklaces will be back in fashion next year.
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If you thought having ED in ancient times was bad, wait until you hear about 16th century France. In this period, having erectile dysfunction could land you in court!
At this time, it was believed that the prime aim of marriage was procreation, so one of the only reasons the Church would permit a woman a divorce was if their husband could not perform sexually. Women who were unhappy with their marriage began to charge their Husbands with “injurious non-consummation” before religious courts.
By the 1500s, the Courts were faced with a tidal wave of cases, and the onus fell upon men to prove their innocence by demonstrating their ability to perform in front of expert teams of priests, surgeons and midwives! Unsurprisingly, many men found that their abilities would fade on public examination.
If the man were unable to perform to the satisfaction of the experts, then the Church would order that the marriage be annulled. The man’s only form of recourse was a Trial by Congress, where he would be asked to have sex with his wife before the team of experts. Thank heavens we’ve moved on!
Let’s fast forward to 1920s America, where things take another turn for the bizarre. John R. Brinkley is taking the nation by storm with a new miracle cure for impotence. The catch? Brinkley is a con artist. His ‘cure’ involves sewing a goat’s testicular gland into a man’s scrotum, which does precisely nothing.
Somehow, this medically useless procedure turned Brinkley into a millionaire, and he practised his fraudulent operation for two decades! His money allowed him to launch the world’s most powerful radio station in Mexico, out of the reach of regulators in the United States. It also gave him a large enough following to almost win the governorship of Kansas.
Eventually, the rug was pulled from under him, and he was unable to practise medicine in most states. He also died nearly penniless as a result of a large number of malpractice, wrongful death and fraud suits brought against him.
Finally, in 1983, ED treatment made a significant advance thanks to British physiologist Giles Brindley. In an infamous scientific presentation at the Las Vegas meeting of the American Urological Association, he removed his pants to show the audience his chemically-induced erection. Perhaps also providing a valuable lesson on how not to announce a scientific finding!
In spite of the wildly inappropriate presentation, Brindley’s discovery led to research on vasodilators and alpha-blocking agents as a treatment for erectile dysfunction – paving the way for the discovery of Sildenafil.