In the long history of medicine, there are many things that make us cringe. Examples include scary dentist tools, electroshock machines and leeches used to treat a variety of ailments.
This week’s artifact, a white ceramic leech jar, dates to about 1850. It was donated by the A. Bellerue Drug Store of La Crosse, which opened in 1880 and closed sometime in the early 20th century.
Leeches have been used in medicine for thousands of years, with the earliest mention of “bloodletting” occurring about 800 B.C. in an ancient Sanskrit text titled “Sushruta Samhita.” One of the most common types of leeches that have been used for medicine is the species Hirudo medicinalis, or the European medicinal leech.
Almost every Old Word culture used these little worms. In Egypt, for example, they were used to treat everything from fevers to flatulence. Leeches are particularly useful in situations where blood flow is necessary, as their saliva contains anticoagulants that lets oxygen rich blood into the wound and promotes healing. In the 1800s, leeches even were used to treat for black eyes, which appears to be the specific use for today’s artifact.
Staring in the 20th century, many doctors shied away from the unappealing idea of using worms on their patients. In 1985, a physician from Harvard University was attempting to reattach a severed ear onto a young child and could not reattach the veins because they kept clotting. By using leeches to take some of the blood from the ear — and using the leech saliva — the ear was able to be saved.
Leeches are used today because of their unique ability to effectively remove blood and keep a wound bleeding. One downside, however, is that sometimes after the leech is full it can unattach itself from the designated area and hide in the patient’s bedsheets.
In 2001, researchers from University of Wisconsin-Madison developed a mechanical leech that never gets full, like traditional worms do, and has the added bonus of not looking like a wriggling worm that can detach at any time, which can be disconcerting for both the patient and the patient’s family.
Leeches are still studied in an effort to better understand their abilities, and some physicians still prefer using live leeches over mechanical versions because they are cheaper and are self-reproducing tools.
Overall, leeches represent a vital part of the continuing history of medicine from around the world as well as the medical collection here at the La Crosse County Historical Society.