Fantastic Finds for Friday: Leeches!

Today’s fantastic find is definitely not for the squeamish! I always come across my best finds during a spot of routine cataloguing, and this week I have been working on some midwifery lecture notebooks which were donated to the RCM collection recently.

These lecture notebooks were written by Ethel Maine as a student nurse and pupil midwife during the late 1890s, and from the scribbled addresses in the back of the book, it seems as though Ethel was studying in the East End of London. The parts of the notebooks which intrigued me were the general nursing notes, in particular referring to the application of leeches as a cure.

There are details on how to apply the leeches to the patient – ‘they are best inverted in a wineglass, which is then inverted over the spot where they are wanted to bite’, how to know which end was the head – ‘A leech always moves head first’, and tips on how to make them bite – ‘the surface should be smeared over with milk, or sugar and milk, or cream’. My stomach turned a bit at the instructions to leave the leech to drop off once repleted, but even more so at directions on how to apply them inside the mouth – ‘a piece of thread should be fastened to the tail, so that you may hinder it from moving too far.’ The handy tip of swallowing a couple of glasses of port wine to poison the leech should it be swallowed by mischance makes the prospect no more attractive!

With recommendations about the best type of leech to use (spotted leech and green leech) and the amount of blood taken by the insect (one dram and a half), and one leech for every two years of age with a maximum of six, I wonder how many students had the opportunity to  put the theory into practice.

In ancient times leeches were used to treat everything from headaches to ear infections to haemorrhoids. Their main use lay in draining blood away from swollen areas, as well as the process of debridement, which is the removal of dead tissue and exposure of healthy tissue. Bloodletting using leeches was one method used by physicians to balance the body, ridding it of ‘plethora’, while cosmetically, women during the 1800s would apply leeches around their face, as they believed it gave them a more radiant look! But the practice largely died out in the early 1900s as medicine advanced and antibiotics took over. There was a small scale comeback in the use of leeches during the 1980s and an increase in the recognition that they can be useful in today’s medicine by aiding blood flow in order to preserve tissue.

Open copyright
Illustration in: Bossche, Guillaume van den, Bruxellas, Typis Joannis Mommarti, 1639 Historia medica, in qua libris IV. animalium natura, et eorum medica utilitas esacte & luculenter…

I would be interested to know just how leeches may have been used in the context of midwifery, and will certainly be on the lookout for references among other parts of the collection!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s