This week’s question was asked by: a friend.

QUESTION: In the past, why did doctors bleed people?

ANSWER: Yes, it’s hard to believe that bleeding patients was a routine procedure doctors used to cure people. It was the chief tool in the doctor’s arsenal for hysteria, heart disease, tuberculosis, high fever and just about any malady that comes to mind.

For hundreds of years, physicians relied heavily on bloodletting. For the ancients, deliberate bleeding was designed to rid the body of bad energy and release demons. For the Greeks, it was to restore the body’s balance of fluids. Blood and other body fluids were termed “humours” and had to be in balance to maintain good health. For physicians in the Middle Ages, bleeding was to reduce inflammation. No matter the era, the poor patient was left pale, weakened, unconscious and sometimes dead.

There might have been a grain of truth to the practice of bloodletting. If a person suffered from hypertension (high blood pressure), reducing the volume of blood had the benefit of reducing blood pressure.

Bloodletting was popular in our newly formed United States. Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, recommended high levels of bloodletting. He and a host of other doctors at the time thought that the state of the arteries was the key to curing disease.

Historians debate whether President George Washington died from bloodletting. On Dec. 12, 1799, the former president came down with laryngitis after inspecting his farm on horseback during the severe winter weather of rain, sleet and snow. He entertained dinner guests without drying off. At this own request, his physician heavily bled Washington. He died two days later. There is speculation that Washington’s death was due to loss of blood. They took four pints out of him.

How was the practice of bloodletting carried out? Leeches were used at times, but the prevalent early procedure used thorns, sharpened sticks or sharp bones to open a vein just below the skin. Later practitioners employed lancets and fleams. A fleam was a small double-edged blade held over a vein and thumped in place with a mallet (ouch).

At times, a heated cup or small bowl was placed over the incision. A partial vacuum was created as the air in the bowl cooled, drawing blood to the surface. Blood was collected in a calibrated bowl, so the volume could be monitored.

During the Middle Ages, monks and priests were not allowed to perform surgeries. Barbers did the bloodletting. People relied on barbers to lance boils, amputate gangrenous limbs and drill a hole in the head to let out evil spirits that caused mental illness and epilepsy.

During the bloodletting procedure, the patient would grip a white rod to make the veins stand out and stimulate blood flow. White strips of cloth bandages were used to clean the bleeder. Dirty bandages were washed and hung to dry on a rod outside the shop.

To advertise, the barber would display the bowls of blood in the shop window. The colors of the barber pole have been interpreted that red represents the blood; blue, the veins; and white, the bandages. That’s the origin of the barber pole.

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Larry Scheckel is a retired Tomah High School physics teacher.


Tomah Journal editor

Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

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