In early modern Europe, leeches were in high demand for their medicinal uses in bloodletting, a demand which only increased during a ‘leech craze‘ in the first half of the 1800s. To meet this demand there was a whole profession devoted to the collection of leeches. Collectors, mostly women, waded into ponds populated by leeches, and attracted the worms with their bare legs. Some used animals instead, for example horses that were too old for hard physical labour. While this work was not physically demanding, leech collectors suffered from the loss of blood and frequently from infections they caught from the leeches.
Wordsworth describes an encounter with a leech collector in ‘Resolution and Independence’, a poem of 1807:
...to these waters he had come
To gather leeches, being old and poor:
Employment hazardous and wearisome
And he had many hardships to endure:
From pond to pond he roamed, from moor to moor;
Housing, with God's good help, by choice or chance,
And in this way he gained an honest maintenance.
Today, as medical scientists find new uses for leeches in surgery and pharmaceutical research, the leeches are supplied by specialised ’leech farms‘.
Related Themes and Topics
Techniques and Technologies:
M Duke, The Development of Medical Techniques and Treatments. From Leeches to Heart Surgery (Madison, Conn: International Universities Press, 1991)
T Robinson, The Worst Jobs in History. Two Thousand Years of Miserable Employment (London: Pan, 2005)
A type of worm that possesses suckers at both ends of its body. Formerly widely used for letting blood, the medicinal leech may now be used following microsurgery to encourage the growth of new capillaries. Leeches are found in tropical forests, grasslands and in water.