Foolish Remedies: Bloodletting

1 April 2014

A few months ago, we asked for your best tips for curing a cold on Twitter. The answers were brilliantly illustrated by our very own Rob Bidder as part of our Curious Conversations. April Fools’ Day kicks off our Foolish Remedies series as Muriel Bailly explores other unusual cures for illnesses inspired by Henry Wellcome’s collection.

People have always been fascinated by illness and disease, whether out of self-interest, general curiosity or morbid preoccupation. It’s interesting to look at how people in the past dealt with various afflictions and how effective (or not) they were. Looking back, some make more sense than others and then there are those that really make you wonder…

The first object from the collection to illustrate this is the scarificator and bleeding bowl. They are used for bloodletting and can usually be seen in our Medicine Man gallery. Bloodletting is the practice of making a small incision in someone’s veins to let the excess of blood out (not arteries: the patient would bleed do death within seconds).

 An English Scarificator with six lancets.
[object Object]

An English Scarificator with six lancets.

Can someone have “excess” blood? If you believe in the theory of the four humours, or humorism, then yes. Ancient Greeks and Romans mapped their understanding of human health and the body on their understanding of the universe. For them the harmony in the universe was maintained by the right balance of the four elements (air, water, fire and earth) and the four seasons (hot, dry, cold and wet). Similarly, good health was ensured by the right balance of the four humours, or body fluids, within our body: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile.

In the 2nd century AD, when Galen discovered that arteries carried blood, as opposed to air (as it was believed until then), there developed a need to “purge” the excess of blood previously not accounted for. From that moment, the practice became very popular and remained so until the 19th century.

During the 1800s, the practice of bloodletting was extremely fashionable in Europe, particularly in the UK, where people in good health were bled as regularly as they went to the market. It was considered a preventive action to boost your health, not dissimilar to drinking fresh orange juice or a yogurt type drink every morning today.

Another popular method of bloodletting was to use leeches. By 1830 France imported about 40 million leeches every year for medical purposes and in 1840 England imported 6 million leeches from France alone for the same purpose. The practice lost favour in the 19th century when doctors and researchers started questioning what the actual beneficial effects of bloodletting were. However, other inefficient and harmful treatments were still available, such as potions and tonics.

 Pharmacy leech jar.
[object Object]

Pharmacy leech jar.

Today, bloodletting (or phlebotomy) is still practiced to cure specific illnesses such as haemochromatosis (iron overload) and polycythemia (high blood volume).

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.