The History of Bloodletting

The history of bloodletting extends thousands of years and has an eerie connotation to it for most people living today. Images are conjured up of sick and ailing people lying on a bed being cut and drained of their blood due to some seemingly misinformed idea that this would cure them of their sickness, pains, or other problems. Bloodletting is essentially the withdrawal of blood from a person in the belief that by doing so, it will cure them from an illness or disease. Oddly enough, it is one of the oldest known medical practices and dates back more than 3000 years.

From the ancient Mesopotamians to the Aztecs, Greeks and Egyptians, the idea was shared that disease and sickness originated directly in blood or were due to irregular levels of blood. This notion led these ancient peoples to voluntarily allow for a physician or other qualified person to draw their diseases out or regulate their "humors" through their blood. In some ancient civilizations, bloodletting was an important part of certain rituals and was used as a form of personal sacrifice to the higher powers. The concept of bloodletting later became based on a health system in which the body is regulated by four liquid "humors" (blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm), blood being the primary of these. In order to be considered in good health, your "humors" needed to have the proper balance, which would be designated by the physicians and/or surgeons of the time. Some believe that the medical theory may have been strengthened by the natural process of menstruation and that women naturally regulated their "humor" levels better than men.

Bloodletting was used for a very long period of time. This is partially due to the fact that until medicine as a whole developed, there was really no other solid theory behind our understanding of illnesses and other human ailments. This reasoning, coupled by physician advocacy, experimentation, and advancements is what made bloodletting so widely accepted and practiced from its beginnings as early as 1200BC until the end of the 19th century. Although the concept remained the same, the methods of bloodletting and the people who performed the operation were different throughout its history.

Bloodletting was not only accepted as normal during its time, but also quite thought out and scientific. Surgeons from Galen of ancient Rome, to Hans von Gersdorff of Germany in 1517, to barbers in the 18th and 19th centuries had their own relatively complex systems for exactly how to remove a patient’s blood, where on the body the blood should be taken from, and how much blood should be removed based on things like age, day of the week, season, and the physical location of the patient. As the practice of bloodletting evolved, many of the practicing surgeons had their own specific methods for drawing blood. Some drew blood from the affected region on a patient’s body, while others would take the blood from the furthest point away from the ailing area. The most accepted methods and tools used for the job differ greatly from century to century and from surgeon to surgeon. The instruments used for bloodletting vary from primitive tools like the teeth of animals and sharpened stones, to Lancets (surgical knives used to incise veins), cupping cups (a heated glass cup placed on the patients skin which created a vacuum, drawing blood to the skins surface making extraction of their blood much easier), and leeches placed in strategic areas on a patient’s body to suck out any excess or diseased blood.

Today, it is well understood that bloodletting is not an effective way of curing or preventing diseases and can actually weaken an already ailing patient and cause many further, more serious medical issues. Infection, cutting of nerves, fainting, and sometimes death are what the surgeons of the past had to deal with on a daily basis, and for these very obvious reasons, bloodletting has been abandoned in modern medicine. We have, however, taken some of the basic ideas of bloodletting and use them to this day. The terms phlebotomy and venipuncture come from bloodletting, but are simply similar terms for obtaining small amounts of blood samples for testing. This is generally performed by laboratory scientists, phlebotomists, dialysis technicians, and other medical practitioners. You can still see the remnants of bloodletting and the role it played in older societies, generally people living between 1100-1500AD, by looking at the red and white striped poles outside of older style barber shops. These poles represent the look of a bloody white cloth, and signified that the barber not only performed his regular barbershop duties, but was also a surgeon who performed this old and generally forgotten procedure.

For more information on bloodletting and related issues, you may visit the following resource sites:

Brief History of Surgery

Balancing the Humors

Bloodletting Tools

Leech Therapy

History of Barbershops

Bloodletting Antiques

Long History of Bloodletting

Bloodletting and Other "Miraculous Cures"

Medicine in Mesopotamia

Medicine in Ancient Egypt

Medicine in Ancient Greece

Venesection

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