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By Selina Hurley on

Not For The Squeamish….

I often get asked what skills you need to be a curator. As a medical curator, the one I’ve found most useful is having a strong stomach.
Unsurprisingly, we have large amounts of blood-related items in the collections including bleeding bowls, lancets, leech jars, cupping sets and even mechanical leeches.

Lancets with a case showing a bloodletting scene 1750-1850 (A647881, Science Museum, London)

Blood was let from patients to restore their the balance of their humours. For instance, a fever was a sign of too much hot blood running through the body so to return equilibrium, blood was let from a vein into a bleeding bowl.

It required some skill to hit the right spot and to know when enough was enough. Most would have been barber-surgeons or physicians and often advertised their wares in particularly literal fashion.

Barber surgeon's shop sign, England, 1680-1830 (A631340, Science Museum, London)

But it’s not just people on dry land that require treatment. One of the more amazing items is a blood letter’s document wallet.

Richard Phillips' document wallet, England (A633734, Science Museum, London)

The owner of the wallet, Richard Phillips was on board HMS Eclipse in 1813 and probably performed cupping or bleeding to the sailors on board – undoubtedly a messy procedure.

Bloodletting was not only confined to humans – animals too were bled.  The tools are only slightly different – bloodsticks are a used to tap a fleam into the jugular vein of an animal.

Group of bloodsticks, 1750-1850 (Science Museum, London)

The work of the bloodletter or barber surgeon seem far distant in our history but there is one relic of their work that survives – a barber’s red and white pole.  The colours represent the bandages: clean and bloodstained.

They are entwined around a pole which is reminiscent of the staff grasped by those about to be bled from the arm. Fortunately barbers don’t perform the same jobs now….