What the Fuck Is a Mechanical Leech?

In Depth

What The Fuck Is This? is a column examining terrifying medical instruments throughout history.

When I have a headache, I take ibuprofen. You used to have to bleed for half an hour.

Humoral theory—the idea that every person is comprised of four humors associated with the four fundamental elements—was the reigning explanation for the workings of our innards for millennia. First codified by Hippocrates and Galen, the theory guided medical thought all the way into nineteenth century Europe. A good balance of the humors (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) was said to be essential to maintaining health. Sickness resulted when one of the humors was lacking, or, in some cases, too plentiful.

The practice of bloodletting was developed in response to the incorrect assumption that sometimes people had too much blood, resulting in fevers, inflammations, headaches, and hemorrhage. So to cure a patient, a medical practitioner would “breathe a vein.” A good method for bloodletting was the medicinal leech, a small, sturdy animal that will attach itself to skin and suck up to an ounce of blood. But what if you couldn’t find any?

In the 1830s, doctor François Broussais very enthusiastically introduced leeching to France—one illustration depicts Broussais prescribing an additional 90 leeches to a bedridden patient. The introduction prompted the eventual import of nearly 50 million leeches annually and nearly causing the extinction of the species.

One attempt at an artificial leech was created by Dr. Baron Charles Louis Heurteloup. Phisick Medical Antiques describes the object as such:

After the cut had been made the glass tube would be placed over it and the wing nut turned to create a vacuum in the tube which would draw up the blood. More commonly they have a short scarifier which works by pulling back and releasing a sprung lancet, or a string mechanism for rotating a circular knife.

Another version, called the bdellomètre, invented by military doctor Jean-Baptiste Sarlandière in 1817, grew in popularity. The bdellomètre was a mechanical blood pump that was able to draw a controlled amount of blood from the patient. See a picture of it here (it looks like a friendly robot).

Today, leeches are used to prevent blood clotting post-surgery, as are mechanical leeches, although much more rarely. About a decade ago, one team of scientists from the University of Wisconsin invented a small device that performs the same task as a leech, only better.

“Perhaps the mechanical device’s biggest advantage is that it is not a leech,” said scientist Nadine Connor in an interview with Scientific American. “People don’t want this disgusting organism hanging on their body. This added psychological stress for both patient and family members compounds an already difficult situation.”

Thank God today is today.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image via Science Museum/Wellcome Images.

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