The Prescription for Rheumatism Used to Be to Sit Inside a Rotting Whale for 30 Hours

The treatment’s efficacy, however, remains questionable

Photo: National Library of Australia

Back in the late 19th century, if you suffered from joint pain, your doctor might have prescribed a cutting-edge new treatment: sitting inside a rotting whale carcass.

According to an 1896 story published in The New York Times, the "whale cure" was popularized after "a gentleman of convicial habits but grievously afflicted with rheumatism" noticed a whale carcass on the beach. A jokester, he decided to jump right in. (Some later said he was drunk.) His friends were horrified but "the heat and the smell were too great" for them to rescue their achy, daredevil buddy, so they just waited around for him to come out.

Lo and behold, when he emerged, "the rhemuatism from which he had been suffering for years had entirely disappeared," the story concludes. 

After that, the town of Eden, Australia, became a sort of dead-whale equivalent to Turkish baths. If people suffering from rheumatism could hold out for 30 hours, it was rumored that they could be cured of their condition for up to a year, the Sydney Morning Herald reports. The Australian National Maritime Museum includes this practice in a new exhibition on whales. Here's the Morning Herald with more:

Michelle Linder, curator of the museum's Australian content, said: ''I don't know there was scientific evidence per se [to support the practice] but there was hearsay at the time that they felt better after being in the whale.

''It was done elsewhere but I don't think it was a really popular thing to do. It would have been an isolated thing to do.''

For those bold enough to try it, a hole would be cut into a dead whale and the patient lowered inside. Only the patient's head would remain poking out of the rotting mass, the BBC reports. Regardless of whether the mass of warmly decomposing blubber gave patients any relief, in this case, it could very well be that the cure was worse than the disease.

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