When Was Blood-letting Common?
Blood-letting was a common form of medical treatment before the time of Hippocrates (400 B. C.), the Greek “father of medicine” and was still much in fashion for various ailments a century ago. A bleeding-glass formed part of the symbol of the physician in ancient Egypt.
Bloodletting (or blood-letting) is the withdrawal of blood from a patient to cure or prevent illness and disease. It is claimed to have been the most common medical practice performed by surgeons from antiquity until the late 19th century, a span of almost 2,000 years.
The old ideas about blood-letting, or phlebotomy, arose from a theory that certain body fluids, known as “humors”, controlled a person’s illnesses and decided his character. Today we call a person “sanguine” if he is optimistic or cheerful, but to a doctor in the Middle Ages a sanguine man was one in whom hot blood predominated over his other humors. A “phlegmatic” or stolid man was one who suffered from too much cold, wet phlegm.
For many illnesses it was considered that the best cure was to restore the balance of humors by relieving the body of diseased blood. Bleeding became almost a panacea, a cure-all. Monks were bled regularly to keep their minds from worldly thoughts. Madame de Maintenon (1635-1719) was said to have been bled to stop her from blushing.
Blood-letting was prescribed by doctors, but performed by barbers. The barbers took over as surgeons in 1163, when a papal decree forbade the clergy to shed blood, and they continued the profession for six centuries. On a barber’s pole the red stripes represented the blood and the white ones the bandages, while the gilt knob at the end is the symbol of the basin in which the barber-surgeon caught the blood –or the lather.
In the 18th century many people still had themselves bled regularly as a treatment for various illnesses, especially those due to over indulgence in food and drink. Frequently people died not from the disease but from the supposed cure. Blood-sucking worms called leeches were often used, being regarded as an essential part of a doctor’s equipment. Even today the withdrawal of blood is said to help certain conditions, and leeches are still used in some countries, particularly in the East.
In Europe the practice continued to be relatively common until the end of the 18th century. The practice has now been abandoned by modern style medicine for all except a few very specific conditions. It is conceivable that historically, in the absence of other treatments for hypertension, bloodletting could sometimes have had a beneficial effect in temporarily reducing blood pressure by reducing blood volume.
However, since hypertension is very often asymptomatic and thus un-diagnosable without modern methods, this effect was unintentional. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the historical use of bloodletting was harmful to patients.
Today, the term phlebotomy refers to the drawing of blood for laboratory analysis or blood transfusion. Therapeutic phlebotomy refers to the drawing of a unit of blood in specific cases like hemochromatosis, polycythemia vera, porphyria cutanea tarda, etc., to reduce the number of red blood cells. The traditional medical practice of bloodletting is today considered to be a pseudoscience.