Leech Collector and Bloodletting in the 19th Century

Titled, “The leeches of the day before and the leeches of tomorrow.” Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Titled, “The leeches of the day before and the leeches of tomorrow.” Courtesy of Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Intro

There have been many strange and weird jobs across history. Some were a necessary part of life and some had more to do with religious practices.

Over the years, many of those professions have disappeared due to changing religious beliefs, but mostly, due to ever-evolving technological and medical developments that had made most of these jobs obsolete.

An old profession that has largely disappeared is that of leech collector, sometimes called leech gatherer or leech finder.

George Walker’s leechfinders. Public domain.
George Walker’s leech finders. Public domain.

Leech Collector

Collecting leeches was a profession that had been around for centuries and was used to treat such vague ailments as fever headaches and stroke. Doctors prescribed the leeches to help with blood infections, hysteria, and other issues.

Leech collecting business began in the early 19th century in Europe when leeches were used for treating an array of ailments and diseases. Leeching became a popular treatment fad during the early twentieth century but eventually decreased as passing generations started using other treatments.

The collectors would use a wand to rouse the leeches from their hiding spots in mud, vegetation and water. Leech gatherers used to collect fresh leeches from ponds and then sell them to pharmacists or physicians who would then use them for medicinal purposes such as bloodletting.

Collectors would travel to ponds using horses’ legs as bait to obtain prized leeches. Although at times they would use their own legs as bait. Leech gatherers often used a bloodstick and fleams to cut the horses and attract the leeches. Experienced farmers would also use bloosticks and fleams to bleed their own farm animals when they were sick.

Antique veterinary fleam and bloodstick
Nineteenth-century brass veterinary fleam with four steel blades and a wooden bloodstick. In nineteenth-century veterinary practice, the bloodstick would be used to strike the fleam into the jugular veins of animals to drain their blood. This procedure was known as bloodletting. It was believed that by removing excess harmful ‘humours’ in this way, the body would be restored to balance and health. – Sciencephoto.com

This position was more commonplace in the 19th century before antibiotics were invented but are still used today in certain cases. It usually took around 20 minutes to gather a sufficient amount of leeches, but the time could vary depending on how many animals were used to attract them. However, the resultant wound could bleed for up to 10 hours.

They would pull the leeches off when they were done sucking, and then put them in a container or bottle. It was a hard day’s work, and often times the collectors suffered from severe blood loss themselves.

The local doctor had to be informed of the number of leeches obtained so that he could cull them accordingly. Swampy water was best for attracting these creatures, and they were sold in batches of three legs – their skin was thick enough to protect them during transportation.

A jar for keeping medicinal leeches - Bedford Museum
A jar for keeping medicinal leeches – Bedford Museum

It was an interesting occupation as one had to wait in the ground near water while using old horses with the bloodstick and fleams devices, then pluck animal legs (as well as their own) when necessary and sell them off.

Leech finder was a seasonal job since in the winter months the leeches are not particularly active. Despite the hardships of the job, it was not a well-paid one and leech finders would often complain about the hardships they had to endure.

Bloodletting

The practice of bloodletting can be traced to Ancient Egypt. Physicians mistakenly explained their ideas based on the red secretions observed in hippopotami. They erroneously assumed that the animal had scratched itself to relieve distress.

In Greece, the practice of bloodletting was modelled on the process of menstruation. It was widely believed that the menstrual cycle functioned as a way to “purge women of bad humours.”

Ancient Greek painting on a vase, showing a physician bleeding a patient - The Paytel Arybalos, 480-470BC
Ancient Greek painting on a vase, showing a physician bleeding a patient – The Paytel Arybalos, 480-470BC

There were two main beliefs to the practice of bloodletting in Ancient. The first was that blood did not circulate in the body, but that it could stagnate in the extremities.  The second theory was that “humoral balance was the basis of illness or health, the four humours being blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile, relating to the four Greek classical elements of air, water, earth, and fire respectively.”

Bleeding charts were common during medieval times, showing a correlation between specific bleeding zones and the alignment with the planets and the zodiac signs.

A chart showing the parts of the body to be bled for different diseases, c. 1310–20.
A chart showing the parts of the body to be bled for different diseases, c. 1310–20. – This part of the manuscript contains an assortment of texts about astrology and medicine. This combination was common in manuscripts all over Europe by the fifteenth century. To people in the Middle Ages, there was a close link between the time of year, the moon’s seasons and other astrological factors and health and medical treatment, as they would affect the body’s humours.

Medieval authors advised that Saint’s days were favourable for bloodletting. Similarly, Islamic medical authors also suggested bloodletting to treat fevers and other common ailments. The Jewish Talmud also recommended the practice on Shabbat days. The practice of bloodletting was also a common method in Ayurvedic medicine practised in India.

The Barber-Surgeon

The profession of barber-surgeon can be traced to 1163. It was then at the Council of Tours, that the clergy was banned from the practice of surgery. The College de Saint-Côme et Saint-Damien in Paris, clearly defined the role of barbers in 1210, separating them from the surgeons.

From then on, the profession of barber-surgeon included not only cutting hair or giving a shave but also pulling out teeth and bloodletting using leeches.

A barber surgeon's bloodletting set, beginning of the 19th century, Märkisches Museum Berlin
A barber surgeon’s bloodletting set, beginning of the 19th century, Märkisches Museum Berlin

By the 19th century, it was not physicians who would perform bloodletting procedures using leeches. More often than not, they will recommend blood and the procedure was carried out by barber-surgeons.

Barber-surgeons in Amsterdam began using coloured stripes during the Renaissance era to indicate that they were prepared to bleed their patients (red), set bones or pull teeth (white), or give a shave if nothing more urgent was needed (blue).

A software rendering of a spinning barber pole
A software rendering of a spinning barber pole

The original design of the barber’s pole had a brass basin at the top and bottom. Representing that the leeches were kept at the top, and the blood flow was to be collected at the bottom.

However, as medical knowledge changed and people began questioning the efficacy of leeches, the profession slowly disappeared. – Although leech collectors still exist in some parts of the world, their job is not as popular as it once was.

2 thoughts on “Leech Collector and Bloodletting in the 19th Century

  1. Leeches are effective at increasing blood circulation and breaking up blood clots. It should be no surprise that they can be used to treat circulatory disorders and cardiovascular disease. Chemicals derived from leech saliva have been made into pharmaceutical drugs that can treat: hypertension.

  2. Leeches get a bad rap, but they’re actually pretty cool once you get to know them—and we’re finding out more about them, even today. Recently, a team led by Anna Phillips, curator of parasitic worms at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered a new species of medicinal leech (pictured above) in a Maryland swamp. We asked parasite expert and curator at the American Museum of Natural History Mark E. Siddall to share some surprising facts about the worms we love to hate. I am so glas someone finally did something to show off the incredible points.

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