October 25, 2012

Medicine in the Nineteenth Century: Bloodsuckers (and I don't mean vampires)

I hope you have a strong stomach because today we are starting a series on creepy bloodsucking critters and the role they played in nineteenth century medicine. I saw some pretty disgusting things during my career as a physician, yet even I get a tad squeamish on this topic.

Let's start with leeches.  Leeches have been used for medicinal purposes since the stone age .  They reached their heyday, though, in the nineteenth century when bloodletting was very popular. Back then, it was believed that all diseases were due to an excess of blood. Therefore, to cure the disease, excess blood had to be removed.  Leeches were efficient bloodsuckers, sucking their weight in blood within 15 minutes (about a half teaspoon).   Leeches were raised on commercial farms and it is estimated that 30 million leeches were used in the year 1846 alone.  Not only were they used for bloodletting, but they were touted as a cure-all for all kinds of ailments.

Now here's the interesting part:  leeches are still used in medicine today.  They are used in microsurgery, in wounds to drain congested blood, by plastic surgeons during difficult grafts and reconstructive surgery and for the relief of  arthritis pain.

Still, if my doctor wanted to use leeches on me, I don't think I could do it.  The very idea makes me, well, baaaaarf.

For some stomach turning images, additional reading and references, see:

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