Blast from Europe's medieval medical past: leeches

From TIME:

Another blast from Europe's medieval medical past are medicinal leeches. Similar to bloodletting, leeches were utilized to draw out the "bad blood" that medieval physicians believed caused many of their patients' ailments.

In modern medicine, however, leeches are used in reconstructive surgery to provide a vacuum effect that helps stimulate blood circulation. This process is crucial to help kick start blood flow into, for example, a reattached finger.

Covered by sucking leeches! BBC video.Miichael Palin experiments with a traditional Russian health therapy in Estonian capital Tallinn by allowing a doctor to cover him in sucking leeches. Fascinating video that is definitely not for the faint hearted! Taken from BBC travel documentary, Palin's New Europe.

In the nineteenth century the medicinal leech Hirudo medicinalis evolved into a lucrative commodity in great demand throughout the western world. In less than a century its trade became big business by any measure, involving tens of millions of animals shipped to every inhabited continent. In this context Ireland is particularly instructive in that it was the first country in Europe to exhaust its supply of native leeches. Concomitantly, it was also the first country to import leeches from abroad, as early as 1750.


Leeches are making a comeback as medical helpers. Chicago Tribune, 2011.

Top 10 Unusual Medical Treatments. TIME.

PubMed: "Does garlic protect against vampires? An experimental study. Owing to the lack of vampires, we used leeches"

Top 10 Bloodsuckers: Leech. AnimalPlanetTV.

History of the Leech Trade in Ireland, 1750–1915: Microcosm of a Global Commodity

1 comment:

  1. It does seem bizarre to be using leeches (Hirudo medicinalis) in modern medicine, but we used them extensively during my residency.

    For "free flap" reconstructions, where we would take a portion of bone/muscle/skin from one site (like the hip) to reconstruct another site (like the jaw), it often takes awhile for the venous outflow to function. The leeches were used to relieve the venous congestion.

    The funniest thing is that they drop off and slither away after they are sated, leaving a bloody, slimy snail-like trail. The nurses were not charmed. But the leeches saved a good many reconstructions.
    Thanks for an outstanding med blog. Russ