The History of the Leech in Medicine
Medicinal leeches are as old as the Pyramids. Literally. Records indicate that Egyptians used leech therapy over 3,500 years ago and leeches (often mistakenly credited as cobras) are included in the hieroglyphics painted on the walls. Leech therapy was used to treat a wide range of conditions, from headaches to hemorrhoids.
Bloodletting is one of the oldest medical practices, having been practiced since ancient times, including the Mesopotamians, the Greeks, the Mayans, and the Aztecs. In Greece, bloodletting was standard practice around the time of Hippocrates and Herophilos.
Herophilos (335-280 BC) was a Greek physician who was the first scientist to systematically perform scientific dissections of human cadavers and is deemed to be the first anatomist. Hippocrates of Cos (460BC-370BC) was also a Greek physician and is referred to as the “father of medicine”. He was the first physician to reject superstitions, legends and beliefs that credited supernatural or divine forces causing illness.
Both physicians used medicinal leeches, amongst other methods, for blood letting to remove blood from a patient to “balance the humours”. The four humours of ancient medical philosophy were blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. The belief at the time was that these four humours must be kept in balance in order for the human body to function properly. Any disease or illness was thought to be a result of an imbalance of these humours. The dominant humour was believed to be blood.
However it was Aelius Galenus (AD 129 – 200), a prominent physician and philosopher and the most accomplished medical researcher of the Roman era who practiced blood letting extensively and introduced blood letting to Rome. His theories dominated and influenced Western medical science for well over a millennium. Of the four humours, Galen believed that blood was the dominant humour and the one in most need of control. Romans were the first to use the HIRUDO name for leeches.
Leech therapy or HIRUDOTHERAPY survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire and remained popular throughout the Middle Ages. Over the centuries it remained an integral part of treating disease and illnesses all around the world. Bloodletting in its various forms was especially popular in the young United States of America. Benjamin Rush (a signatory of the Declaration of Independence) saw the state of the arteries as the key to disease, recommending higher than ever levels of bloodletting. Although, the levels of bloodletting applied were way to high!
As a lecturer at the Royal College of Physicians would state in 1840, “blood-letting is a remedy which, when judiciously employed, is hardly possible to estimate too highly”
Indeed, by the mid 1800’s the demand for leeches was so high that the French imported about forty million leeches a year for medical purposes, and in the next decade, England imported six million leeches a year from France alone, since the leech production from their own farm near Oxford were insufficient. And it wasn’t just Europe – there was an explosion in the use of leeches in Asia and the Middle East.
Many abandoned leeches with the advent of antibiotics in the 1930’s. However bloodletting still persisted and was even recommended by Sir William Osler in the 1923 edition of his textbook The Principles and Practice of Medicine. In the second half of the 20th century leeches refound an important role in medical practice and leeches are now used extensively by reconstructive surgeon’s needing to remove stagnant blood from a flap or reattached limb.
In the Act of June 28, 2005, the Food and Drug administration (FDA) cleared for the first time the commercial marketing of Medicinal Leeches for medicinal purposes and determined that leeches are medical devices because they meet the definition of a medical device.
Medical research and the use of leeches never stopped in some parts of the world, especially in Russia. So it is little wonder that Russia achieved the highest level in overall research on medicinal leeches and became a biggest producer of Hirudo Medicinalis in the World.
Today the rest of the world is catching on as leeches are on the cusp of not only enjoying a revival for known health benefits, but there are constant new discoveries based on thorough medical research about positive effects of the substances produced by medicinal leeches, that are later induced by leeches into human body (and/or animals as well!) during the hirudotherapy treatments.
"...The leech could help to everybody [everyone] ... and even the cat...
The leeches could cure everything."
Prof.A.I.Krasheniuk, St Petersburg, Russia
“When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless and intelligence cannot be applied.”
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