- Education and Science
Long History of Blood-letting for Healing
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.
The blood lets a doctor evaluate a patient's health. Everything from how well various organs are functioning to evaluating an infection is the purpose of the blood test. Blood-letting has been almost totally abolished, although leeches are sometimes used in special circumstances.
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. It 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.
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.
The copyright, renewed in 2018, for this article is owned by Pamela Oglesby. Permission to republish this article in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.