History of Leeches

The average person's reaction to the leech is usually a resounding 'eek' of disgust! But while leeches do look the part of a 'disgusting pest', it doesn't really deserve its reputation for being so. For one thing, leeches are very useful, especially in the field of medicine. Their ability to suck blood comes in very handy, especially when applied to open wounds where blood circulation is a problem and four thousand years have already passed since humans discovered that leeches can be used to treat wounds and other sicknesses. Of course, they've probably been scorned for more years than that but what does it matter? Today, these creatures are acknowledged by the medical community as one of the most useful little critters of all.

Use of these leeches in medicine started at about 2,000 B.C. with the physicians of Greece and Rome. They were also a staple part of the medicine cabinets of households during the medieval period, where leeches were used to treat all kinds of infections.

Leeches shown in various treatments

Leeches shown during treatment of
varied conditions

The popularity of using leeches in medicine suffered a slight decline and picked up in the 19th century when bloodletting was quite popular. They enjoyed some sort of Golden Age, where millions and millions of leeches were raised due to the belief that leeches were a 'cure-all' - a miracle treatment that could get rid of most diseases. Of course, this was understandable because people during that time used bloodletting to treat just about anything. However, leeches were good for local bloodletting, in other words, when a certain part of the body needed to be 'bled'.

Example of Medicinal Leeches

Medicinal Leeches

Leeches were used for anything from skin discolorations to boils; in fact, sometimes they were placed inside the mouth and even inside the throat! When using leeches in the throat, the physician used a leech-glass, although this wasn't really very effective since patients often swallowed the little critters by accident! Whenever this happened, physicians would simply give the patient a glass of salt water. Sometimes, the doctor would also use another popular cure-all - wine. There were times when the leeches would refuse to drink from the puncture site, thus being ineffective, but physicians back then had a solution for this as well - they smeared blood, cream, or beer on the site and the leech would finally be enticed to do its thing.

Leeches were used in England, Scotland, France, Hungary, Ukraine, Turkey, Iran, Russia, Romania, Algeria, and Egypt. It's reported that in 1846, 30 million leeches were used in France and thirteen million leeches were used in London and Paris in just a single year! In America, leech farms were created so that they could produce their own and each day, a thousand leeches were sold, showing just how in demand these amazing invertebrates were at that time.

Patient holding one of their leeches

Patient holding one of their leeches
after treatment

But leeches weren't just grown in farms, some people also tried to catch wild leeches using quite amusing methods. People would put pig blood in a glass and wade into the water or in muddy ditches with their trousers rolled up. They would patiently wait for the leeches to come and willingly let these little critters attach themselves to their legs. Once satisfied, the person would wade back to land and peel off the leeches. Those that were harvested were then sold off to the leech dealers. Leeches became so popular, their numbers started to decline due to over collection.

Ironically enough, it was those in the field of medicine who started to discredit leeches, choosing instead to rely on antibiotics and other medicines and by the end of the 19th century, the use of leeches for medicinal purposes once again faded into obscurity.

Blood expelled after different treatments

Recently, however, leeches have once again found their place in the field of medicine. They are now being bred in captivity in several institutions and leech farms are once again being created, but the use of leeches has become quite sophisticated. They’re not just used for anything, they are also used in the field of microsurgery and to release or drain the congested blood in some wound sites and are preferred in this area because of their precision. Plastic surgeons also use leeches to treat challenging skin grafts and most especially for reconstructive surgery.

Indeed, the use of leeches in history has dwindled and resurfaced quite a number of times and if anything should be proven by this, it's that leeches indeed have a place in the field of medicine - disgusting though they may seem sometimes!