Monday, December 29, 2014

The Ancient Practice of Bloodletting by Jillian Kent

Ancient Greek painting on a vase, showing a physician (iatros) bleeding a patient
I'm sure by now you've had your fill of Christmas posts and you may feel this one belongs closer to Halloween, but hey, we all have our interests and medical history has always intrigued me as I know it intrigues some of you.


So why was the cutting of a vein and the loss of blood through such a method even done let alone done frequently throughout history?

I found more information (including why bloodletting is back and never actually disappeared altogether) about this fascinating medical practice in an article on the Med-Tech Blog.

"Bloodletting is one of the humanity's oldest medical practices, dating back thousands of years and linked to many ancient cultures, including the Mayans, Aztecs, Egyptians and Mesopotamians. The typical purpose was to cure a person suffering from some kind of infirmity (leprosy, plague, pneumonia, stroke, inflammation, herpes, acne – pretty much anything). The patient was pierced or cut and then drained of several ounces of blood until they fainted." Sounds like it would put you asleep for days if it didn't kill you outright. Right? Who was that author who said, " Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed." See, bloodletting cures all woes or does it? I'd suggest you not try this in desperation of your next sentence.

Svømmende blodigle.JPG
Another source of bloodletting was the leech. Lovely looking little critter isn't he?
"Leeches were also used for bloodletting. Applied to the skin, this type of worm can suck several times its original body weight in blood. The use of leeches in Europe peaked between 1830 and 1850, then fell into decline. This was firstly a result of the invention of ‘mechanical leeches’, and then changes in medical models of the body. Today, leeches are used in surgery to help heal skin grafts and restore blood circulation. Their usefulness is no longer attributed to the amount of blood they can suck out, but to an enzyme in their saliva which helps blood flow freely." The Science Museum.

"A surgeon or barber might also use heated cups and an instrument known as a scarificator to bleed a patient. When applied to the skin, the cups created blisters which were then sliced open using a multi-blade instrument that inflicted wounds on the vessels just beneath the skin. Although painful, this approach carried less risk than venesection as the cut was often more superficial."

I hope this short exploration of bloodletting has been both entertaining and informational. For those of you who are interested and have strong stomachs, very strong stomachs, you may want to explore further on the history of medicine with Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Like those of us here at HHH her focus on history. She answers in an interview you can read all of here.

Why is history important today?

Our understanding of the present is filtered through our knowledge of the past. History gives value to the here and now.

I couldn't have said it better myself. So what about you members and fans of HHH? Why is history important to you? Can you think of anything you discovered on our blog this year that was especially interesting or meaningful to you? If so, please share and tell us the name of the blog post and who wrote it.

Happy New Year and may we see and hear from you often in 2015.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Jillian is employed as a counselor for nursing students in Cincinnati, Ohio and possesses a masters degree in social work. She is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors and passionate about mental health, wellness, and stomping out the stigma of mental illness. You can explore further at her website where you can read more about her novels..She invites you to join her on Twitter @JillKentAuthor and Facebook


  1. I'm a nurse and have heard of these practices but was not aware that the patient was bled until they fainted! I do know modern wound care uses leeches for treatment and it gives me the creeps.
    I've enjoyed the posts about fashion the most this year but also enjoyed reading most of them. I didn't like history in school but enjoy it now very much. Sm. wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

    1. Hi Sharon,
      As a nurse you also know that maggots are used to eat away infection. Here's the link for the Med Tech Blog that doesn't seem to be working. I remember my mom telling me about a motorcycle accident and they were using maggots on the patients leg to help clear an infection. That was many years ago in the 1970s.

      Thanks for being a part of our HHH community.

  2. The use of leaches must have been scary for the man or woman who had to endure them on his/her body. it makes me shudder. And just think how many times leaches were used for illness that they couldn't help.

    1. Hi Vickie,
      I can't imagine a leech on my body. Sounds so awful. This brought to mind a scene from a movie called, Stand By Me, that was written by Stephen King. I think he called it The Body. I remember the kids walking through some kind of swamp in the woods and they came out with leeches all over them. Yuck.

      So what was one of your favorite posts this year that you read or wrote about? Just curious. :)

  3. I have heard historians theorize that George Washington was "bled to death." Whether that's true or not, I am always reminded to be thankful that I live in 2014 when I think about the history of medicine. Amazing that the Greeks practiced blood letting. I had no idea it was so ancient. History is important to me personally because it gives me perspective on the problems I face today. It helps me maintain balance and it inspires me to be thankful. As I am for all the HHH history-lovers!

    1. Hi Steph!
      I didn't know that information about George Washington. I know doctors frequently bled patients more than once so if he was already sick it could have easily exhausted him and he would have succumbed to the illness that had attacked him. So sad when you really think about it. Also, the more I study Greek Medicine the more amazed I am. Thanks for sharing why history is important to you, Steph.

  4. Great article, Jillian. Routine blood letting might well have done some good in some cases. Quite a number of men today suffer from too much iron - haemochromatosis - and it can cause many serious health problems. The treatment is frequent blood donations. Up to menopause few women have this problem!

    I'm not sure about that description of "cupping." I've seen the equipment and the scarifier just scrapes the skin. Then the cup is put over the scraped area and it's heated to create suction. The blood beads from the scrapes and is scraped off with a dull blade. It's still done in many parts of the world and it's not supposed to be particularly painful.

    Blistering is different, and sounds much worse.

    1. Hi Jo,
      Nice to see you here. I don't think I've seen you since you taught me to play Whist at a Beau Monde party at RWA many moons ago. :) I didn't know about haemochromatosis, that must be very hard on those who suffer from it. However, the frequent donations must be a blessing to those who need it. I guess it all depends on how often you have to donate. I appreciate you sharing that. I was shocked that my 22 year old daughter showed me cupping marks where her chiropractor had performed this method on her and she said it didn't hurt! I can't forget that scene in The Madness of King George where they "treated" his illness.

      Happy New Year!

  5. That was a while ago, Jillian. Fun times. Yes, treatment could be terrible, in part because doctors were paid to do something, so they did.

    1. Scary isn't it, Jo? I think some doctors still do that today, but for the most part we are blessed with good physicians. By-the-bye, I've used your site many times over the years to educate myself about the Regency era. Your knowledge is much appreciated.