Take a look at this jar.
Can you guess what it was used for?
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.