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Mechanical leech, London, England, 1850-1855

Imagine you’re a doctor in France in 1855. One of the most common treatments at your disposal is bloodletting – how will you do it? The simplest is to make a cut with a sharp blade or lancet, and let your patient bleed into a bowl. You can also use a heated glass cup to help draw the blood to the skin’s surface. Or will you follow the latest French fashion and use a leech? About the length of your finger, it can consume up five times its own weight in blood. How popular is it? Physician François Broussais started a leech craze in the 1830s, and 50 million leeches were imported each year. Professional leech collectors, who supplied the leeches, tried to keep up with demand, but it nearly led to the extinction of the medical leech, Hirudo medicinalis, in Europe. So if you can’t get hold of a live one, you could use this contraption – a mechanical leech. What are its advantages? You can control how much blood is let, and your more squeamish patients might prefer it. Particularly when live leeches are not very good at staying in one place, having a tendency to drop off and reattach somewhere else. Although bloodletting was an essential treatment since ancient Greek times, its value was questioned by doctors in the late 1800s. But wimps beware – the blood-sucking leech is still used today – to help tissue grafts heal. It feeds on old, clotted blood, and draws fresh blood to the surface to speed up recovery.

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Glossary: automatic lancet

A surgical instrument of various forms, commonly sharp-pointed and double-edged, used in venesection, and in opening abscesses, etc,which uses a spring mechanism instead of human force.

Glossary: bloodletting

Puncturing a vein in order to withdraw blood. A popular medical practice for over two thousand years. Bloodletting often involved withdrawing large quantities of blood in the belief that this would cure or prevent many illnesses and diseases. The practice has been abandoned for all but a few very specific conditions.

Glossary: mechanical leech

A mechanical device that promotes the flow of blood through surgical wounds. It was used to replicated the effects of having a real leech attached to the body but without the risk of infection.