The History of Blood Letting – Talk by Dr. Tim Smith

TADS Meeting 19th June 2019

Talk by Dr. Tim Smith,
Retired Consultant Anaesthetist; Curator, Royal Berkshire Medical Museum


Leeches. Some shudder at the thought of them. The Amazonian ones grow to3 feet (92 cms) in length. The smaller European medicinal leech – Hirudo medicinalis – has been used nearly to extinction for at least 3,000 years.

Feeding on blood, of course…… Good job Dr. Tim keeps some in the Medical Museum he helps to run. However, it’s his wife who gives her blood every 2-3 years (or when required) to feed them!

Dr. Tim said the Greeks used leeches obsessively all those thousands of years ago. The slightly slimy creatures were very popular for letting blood until at least the 1850s.

Blood letting can be done 3 ways – cutting into a vein; cupping – causing a vacuum and bruising; and a bite from a leech.

Greek philosophers Hippocrates and Galen decided that the imbalance of the Four Humours caused illness: black and yellow bile, phlegm and out-of-sorts blood. Most people would have got well  anyway without the blood letting!

On 18th June, 1815, Lt. Col. The Hon. Fred Cavandish-Ponsonby was severely wounded at the Battle of Waterloo. Surprisingly he lived in spite of 120 ounces (6 pints) of blood let in 2 days. You only have 8 pints in your body. Conversely, American President George Washington died in 1799 because of blood letting.

Why was blood letting so popular? It was unquestioned then; there were few alternatives; the placebo effect; people lived in spite of it.

Pierre Louis 1787-1822, questioned  blood letting  and decided to use it just for fevers, especially pneumonia. Sir William Oster, 1849-1919, decided that horses should be bled for good condition, therefore in WW1 horses destined for the Western Front, were bled.

One very dangerous practice which could wreck tendons and arteries, was fleaming. You were hit with a blood stick at right angles to your vein.

Cupping is an ancient medieval bloodletting practice for sciatica. Cups were made from horn, glass, bronze, pewter, or rubber and you CAREFULLY sucked out toxins, blood etc…. It’s popular even now in the Far East and parts of Russia for enhancing energy levels, releasing tension, and increasing swimmers’ speeds! Not proven, Tim said.

Surprisingly Gwyneth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham have admitted experiencing this.

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