Weird History The Horrifying History Of Bloodletting And Leeching  

Amanda Sedlak-Hevener
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In the days before modern medical procedures, leeching blood was seen as a cure for many different ailments, from headaches to sore throats and even to flatulence. Bloodletting, sometimes with leeches, was a practice that consisted of removing blood from the body, thereby restoring a person's health. From ancient times up through the late 1800s, people believed that diseases, especially those with symptoms like fevers and the sweats, were caused by having too much blood in the body. So, leeches as medical treatment were used to remove the "harmful" blood in a pretty horrifying medical procedure. This led to many premature deaths, even of famous people like George Washington and King Charles II. Even scarier, in medieval times, sometimes barbers performed the procedure

Because we understand its applications better today, bleeding someone still has its uses, especially since leech therapy restores blood flow and helps those who have had fingers and even limbs reattached to their bodies. 

Bloodletting Supposedly Originated In Ancient Egypt Or Mesopotamia

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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

It's impossible to say when bloodletting first began. Some even theorize that it's a practice "embedded in our human subconscious" because of its widespread and diverse history of applications. But the oldest descriptions and depictions of it have been found in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, and these date back to a time over 3,000 years ago. There are also references to it in the early Chinese, Tibetan, African, and Mayan cultures, showing that the practice spread all over the world. Some of the earliest methods of drawing blood even involved using sharp thorns to tear open the skin. However, these are only the first written and drawn mentions of bloodletting – it may have been practiced even earlier. 

Barbers Conducted Bloodletting Procedures, Which Is Why Barber Poles Have Red Stripes

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Photo: John Kannenberg/flickr/CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

During the medieval era, barbers helped doctors out by performing bloodletting procedures on their own; after all, they had sharp implements. The traditional barber pole comes from this practice – their white and red stripes stand for the bandages (white) and the blood (red) of the procedure. Supposedly, these poles resemble the bloody white towels that barbers would display outside their storefronts. Although barber poles in the U.S. occasionally have blue on them, as well, the additional color is viewed by some as the color of the veins that the barbers would open. Over time, barbers (particularly those in England) were forbidden from conducting bloodletting on their clients, but for several centuries, their jobs were closely related to surgeons. 

Hippocrates Believed That Bloodletting Was One Method Of Keeping The Four Humors Balanced

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The idea of bloodletting centers around Hippocrates's theory of the four humors. He postulated this concept in Greece in 2300 BCE, and it stuck around up through the 19th century CE. Hippocrates believed that the human body was made up of four humors – black bile, phlegm, yellow bile, and blood. When someone was sick, one or more of their humors was out of alignment, and the only way to fix the issue was by removing some of the humor. So, for example, if the illness had to do with the blood, then bloodletting was in order. 

The four humors were also aligned to the seasons, a particular organ, and the elements: black bile equaled winter, earth, and the spleen; the presence of phlegm aligned with autumn, water, and the brain; yellow bile was summer, fire, and the gall bladder; and blood was springtime, air, and the heart. The weather conditions during those seasons helped diagnose the problem and the solution. If someone had a fever and was sweating a lot, then they had too much blood in their bodies. 

In Ancient Greece, Leeches Were Placed On People's Gums, Lips, And Wombs

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Photo: Ryan Wick/flickr/CC-BY 2.0

Bloodletting was usually done in the veins of the elbows or knees, places where the practitioner could easily reach them. However, there are spots on the body that people believed "needed" to be bled that were too small for bloodletting implements. This is where leeches came in. One early practitioner of leeching therapies, Themison, who lived in Greece from 80-40 BCE, stated that leeches could be placed on the fingers, nose, lips, gums, and – even more horrifyingly – the outer parts of a woman's womb. These areas of the body are where he believed hemorrhoid veins were located.