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Long History of Phlebotomy - Blood-letting

Updated on October 14, 2013
Pamela99 profile image

I have been writing about medical issues and all the new medical advances since spending 22 years in the nursing profession.

Modern Day Phlebotomy


Venipuncture by a Phlebotomist

Phlebotomy as it is practiced today is the art of drawing blood via a vein puncture to draw blood for various tests ordered by physicians. It is typically completed by a qualified phlebotomist, a registered nurse or other medical staff.

Ancient Greek Painting of Blood-letting


History of the Egyptians

The ancient art of phlebotomy dates back three thousand years as the practice began with the Egyptians in 1000 B.C. Egyptian history records blood-letting as a treatment for variety of treatments, even though it was carried out in a rather barbaric way. The only conceivable conditions where blood-letting might be useful is with the diseases of severe hemochromatosis, which causes the body to retain too much iron, and primary thrombocythemia, which is a disease that causes the body to produce too many red blood cells or platelets. Nevertheless, the practice was used by the Romans and Greeks throughout the Middle Ages.

Blood-letting was believed to drive out evil spirits; therefore, the procedure was performed by a priest, which was also a physician at that time. Men believed that disease was a curse


During the lifetime of Hippocrates (460 A.D. to 377 B.C.) beliefs changed. Hippocrates utilized careful clinical observations to recognize the symptoms of particular diseases and the concept of body humors was developed at this time. Body humors included blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Hippocrates believed the humors must be in perfect balance for an individual to have good health. Thus, an imbalance was treated by blood-letting. This new concept eventually stopped people from believing that disease was caused by a curse.

Points in the Body for Blood-letting


Blood-letting in Greece by Galen

In Greece, Galen of Pergamon, a prominent Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher discovered that not only veins had blood, but also arteries, which they had previously thought to be filled with air. He also believed in the humoral balance, plus it was commonly believed that blood did not circulate through the body. They thought it stagnated in the extremities. Treatment consisted of giving the patient an emetic to induce vomiting, or they would remove excess blood. Galen developed a rather complex system of how much blood should be removed and from what areas of the body, as shown on the adjoining picture. He believed that blood should be drained close to the diseased area of the body.

Other Beliefs in the Middle Ages

In the 1400’s, astrology also played a role in blood-letting, as signs of the zodiac denoted various body parts. The planets had to be in the correct alignment in order for the procedure to be completed. Through the centuries various religions also played a role in phlebotomy. For instance, the Talmud specified blood-letting should be done on specific days of the week and month, while Christianity had some similar guidelines. Islamic leaders also believed blood-letting was very useful for fevers.

Blood-letting in England in the 19th Century

As late as the early 19th century, blood-letting was practiced in England, even though it was starting to become less popular. It was still actually considered preventive medicine by many people. Physical signs that were thought to require blood-letting included redness, swelling, skin that was warm to the touch and any sign of pus. The treatment consisted of a surgeon making multiple cuts on the body while the blood drained into a bowl. The treatment was stopped when the patient felt faint, as this was considered an indication to stop treatment. There are no records as to the number of people that died from these procedures.

1938 Barber Pole in NC Museum of History



At this time, many barber-surgeons performed blood-letting, minor surgeries, amputation of limbs and dental work, all in addition to cutting hair. The red and white barber poles were designed during this time period, with the red stripe indicating blood and the white represented a tourniquet.

Blood-letting in the United States

The practice of blood-letting was also used in the United States and practiced by the Pilgrims. In fact, President George Washington’s death was probably due to blood-letting. Apparently he had a throat infection, and the physician drained nine pints of blood to treat the infection. He died shortly thereafter, which is hardly surprising as the body typically holds ten pints of blood.

It is difficult to believe that such a practice was carried on until the 1900’s. and in some cases is still practiced in a slightly different manner today by using leeches. In 2004, the FDA approved the use of medicinal leeches, which are used to help heal certain types of wounds and to improve circulation in blocked blood veins. The leeches used in medicine are raised in fresh water.

Ancient Bloodletting


Blood-letting has a long, interesting history. Of course, it is now a sterile procedure performed by a phlebotomist using vacuum tubes to the collect the blood samples. There are still some areas of medicine that still find blood-letting useful by the use of the medicinal leeches. The long history of phlebotomy is very interesting as medical science evolved through the centuries.

© Copyright July 2012, by Pamela Oglesby .Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.


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  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 4 years ago from United States

    Mary, I think that is an important as some people are surely more skilled than others. This hub was more about the history of blood letting and I discovered several things I had not known before. I appreciate your comments.

  • mary615 profile image

    Mary Hyatt 4 years ago from Florida

    I was a Phlebotomist while waiting to take my Medical Technology exam to become certified. I enjoyed the work a lot. The pay was not great, but I liked to think my job was important.

    Voted UP and shared.

  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 5 years ago from United States

    teaches, i am grateful for those good phlebotomists that can take a blood sample where it isn't painful. Thanks for your comments.

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

    I cringe at the sight of a needle when I go to the Dr.'s office, but it does have it's benefits in healing. I have learned something new today on this procedure. I am thankful for those who do this for a career and help us to endure the pain!

  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 5 years ago from United States

    lord de cross, I love history also and I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. Thank you for your comments.

    stayingalivemoma, We have it made now compared to the barber shop days. I appreciate your comments.

    vimsoo3, I'm glad you enjoyed this bit of history. Thank you for your comments.

  • vims003 profile image

    Vimesh Ummer.U 5 years ago from india

    hi mam interesting hub...i really eager to know about olden days technologies and i am really happy to read this...thanks for share....

  • stayingalivemoma profile image

    Valerie Washington 5 years ago from Tempe, Arizona

    What an exceptional hub!! I really enjoyed reading it-I almost became a phlebotomist a few years ago. Learning about its history makes me appreciate that I wasn't alive back then!! Oh, the torture! And people complain about getting their blood drawn NOW?

  • Lord De Cross profile image

    Joseph De Cross 5 years ago

    What wonderful History of blood letting. Thank God a phlebotomist takes c are of businness. I knew abuot those barbers and their extra curriculum. Great read. I love this was like a dessert..! Thanks Pamela99!

  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 5 years ago from United States

    anginwu, I agree that we have come a long way, thank goodness. I appreciate your comments.

  • anglnwu profile image

    anglnwu 5 years ago

    Interesting--I didn't know they did it as early as the Egyptians. We've come a long way. Thanks for sharing and rated up.

  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 5 years ago from United States

    unknown spy, I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. Thanks for your comment.

    whowas, I am also delighted about the current methods. I appreciate your comments.

  • profile image

    whowas 5 years ago

    Thanks for that interesting hub. I hadn't realized quite how far back the practice went. I am delighted that phlebotomy is now a safe, sterile, clinical practice and not left to the barbershop to handle!

  • unknown spy profile image

    IAmForbidden 5 years ago from Neverland - where children never grow up.

    this is very interesting Pamela. I've been hooked to your hub reading the history of phlebtomy.

  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 5 years ago from United States

    drbj, Cute rhyme. I don't like the idea of leeches either. Thanks for your comments.

    Suzette, I'm glad you enjoyed the history of phlebtomy. I remember reading the Laura Wilder books when I was a child and the kids were in a creek where leeches latched onto their ankles. I was horrified! I appreciate your comments.

  • suzettenaples profile image

    Suzette Walker 5 years ago from Taos, NM

    This is quite interesting. I had no idea bloodletting started with the Egyptians. I am so glad I live in modern times and doctors and nurses for the most part know what they are doing! And, I am not into leeches. I remember hiking through some water or swampy area one time and had to pull leeches off my legs. It was awful! Those things are little blood suckers! Thanks for the phlebotomy lesson!

  • drbj profile image

    drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

    It's good that the practice of phlebotomy has evolved, Pamela. Otherwise, to the doctor I would beseech,

    Please, do use anything but don't use the leech!

    Fascinating information, m'dear.

  • Pamela99 profile image

    Pamela Oglesby 5 years ago from United States

    TToombs, I think we all wonder when we are going to get out of the doctor's office! I'm glad you enjoyed the hub and I appreciate your comments.

  • TToombs08 profile image

    Terrye Toombs 5 years ago from Somewhere between Heaven and Hell without a road map.

    Very interesting, Pamela. I guess I never thought there would be a history behind getting poked with a needle. I'm too busy wondering when the heck I'm gonna get outta the doctor's office! :) Great information. VUM! :)