Leech Collectors

You thought your job was tough? Imagine being a medicinal leech collector in the 1800s, possibly one of the least awesome professions in modern history.

Leeches have been used medicinally for thousands of years—possibly as far back as Ancient Egypt. They were used to treat a wide range of conditions by slowly sucking the blood from patients, and it was believed for many years that this form of bloodletting could never be overdone—although we now know that this is painfully untrue.

leech administration

A physician administers leeches.

The Leech Craze

Leech use went on in a mild fashion for centuries until the French physician François-Joseph-Victor-Broussais (1772-1838) claimed most diseases were a product of local inflammation and could be cured through bloodletting. As a result, bloodletting became a catchall solution for every possible ailment, and the leech craze of the 19th century was born.

As the leech trade boomed, leeches were shipped from Germany to America by the tens of thousands. England had to start importing them from France by the mid-1800s, as their own leech stocks weren’t large enough to supply its doctors.

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The Leech Collectors’ Dilemna

Leech collectors were usually poorer citizens who didn’t make much money. In addition, they were often women. These individuals would wade into ponds, bogs, and marshes and attract leeches with two kinds of bait: the legs of old horses that were too worn down to be of much use any longer, or, their own legs. Naturally, the second method was less expensive and more popular.

leech bite

Leech bite./CC Christian Fischer

Leech collectors actually had to let the leeches suck on them for twenty minutes or longer before they could pull them off, as it was easier to dislodge the leech once it was fat with blood. However, the wound might continue bleeding for several hours afterward, which was good for attracting more leeches but not so good for the leech collector. In fact, most individuals in this position suffered from serious illnesses they caught from the leeches as well as severe blood loss at the end of a hard day’s work.

The Decline of the Leech Craze

Eventually, the leech craze died out. They became too expensive to ship, too scarce due to over farming to find, and medically obsolete in the face of new science that questioned the medical merits of bloodletting. The population of the hirudo medicinalis—the only leech species in Great Britain that actually sucks human blood—dwindled considerably as a result of this leech craze and was even thought to have been extinct for many years before it was rediscovered in the 1970s.

Medicinal leeches are still used today to treat certain issues, and in 2004, the FDA approved them as medical devices. To this day, leeches are used to remove blood from congested wounds, such as severed finger reattachments. The small number of leeches used today, however, are farmed, rather than collected.

By Julia Tilford, guest writer for Ripleys.com