Tag Archives: history

Wonderful Things: Leech jar

Take a look at this jar.

Can you guess what it was used for?

A cozy home for a little family?

How about if I told you it was used in the medical profession, does that help at all?  If you know what it was used for, well done!  If you still don’t know then let me enlighten you.  This object is a leech jar.  Once upon a time, those glass tubes that you see inside the jar would have provided air to a whole family of leeches that lived in it. 

Leeches usually live in freshwater, not jars.  They are essentially segmented worms with suckers at both ends.  There are many different types, but the ones that lived in this jar would have used their suckers to attach themselves to an animal or person, release an anaesthetic into them and then feed on their blood.  Leeches can swell up to 5 times their original size and once they have had their fill they will simply fall off their host’s skin. 

While maybe not as good looking as Robert Pattinson, leeches are the original vampires!  This jar would have belonged to a doctor who would have used the leeches to drain blood from their patients in the hope that this would cure them of a variety of ailments, including headaches, fevers and apoplexy.  This was an ancient practice based on the theory of the four humours , and for over 2000 years it was used as a medical cure.  It really reached its height of popularity during the 18th century, when demand for leeches far outstripped the supply.       

Although the use of leeches in medicine is associated with times gone by, they are actually making a bit of a comeback…  Today they can provide useful treatments for arthritis, and varicose veins and even help in reconstructive surgery!  In 2007 doctors at the Royal London Hospital used leeches to help save a man’s leg after he severely damaged it by falling off a lorry:  David Isitt broke his leg in several places and doctors had to graft new skin onto his leg to cover the bone.  Sadly the new skin wasn’t healing, so the doctors decided to use leeches to remove the blood that had pooled under the graft, and draw fresh blood through the veins to encourage them to work again.  Needless to say it worked and his leg recovered!

So, it seems there is still a place in the world for these little blood suckers… maybe objects like this leech jar shouldn’t be retired quite yet! 

  • What other ancient medical practices might still be useful to us today? Would you try them?


  • At one time it was the fashion to have very pale skin and women would use leeches to drain their blood to make themselves appear pale.  What would you be willing to do for fashion?

 The leech jar is on display in The Science and Art of Medicine gallery on the 5th floor. 

-Kate Davis

On this day…

March 5th is a particularly good day for science… On this day were born several scientists whose discoveries have made their way into our everyday life in some way.

Edouard Joseph Louis-Marie van Beneden studied the number of chromosomes in body cells, working out that half of them come from the male sperm and half from the female egg. Standard knowledge for us now!

23 pairs of... chromosocks?

23 pairs of... chromosocks?

Sir Charles Wyille Thomson was a marine biologist who led the HMS Challenger, the first expedition to trawl the ocean depths for new forms of life. We still know so little about the bottom of the oceans, and research continues in great depth (haha).

Etienne Jules-Marey studied how blood moves in the body (he invented a device called the sphygmograph to record variations in blood pressure) and later observed the way animals move using a high-speed camera to produce some of the earliest slow-motion film.

What’s my point? That every single day we can be reminded of discoveries and innovations that changed the way we observe the world and what we know about it. There isn’t a day in the year without a scientific advancement to recall, and that’s quite a powerful thought. Check Today in Science for people and events that made science history, and marvel at how many researchers names you are totally unfamiliar with, yet recognize the technology or ideas they contributed!