Leeching is one of the most ancient healing methods documented in the history of medicine.
- Some of the earliest clearly document records of leeches being used for medicinal purposes come from Africa, Mesopotamia and India in the form of paintings on tombs and ancient Sanskrit writings. Traditional Chinese Medicine also documents the use of leeches in their medical literature.
- Other cultures that are also known to have used leeches for healing are the Maya, the Aztecs, Greeks, Romans, Persians.
- In the 8th century B.C. in a poem, Homer writes “A leech is worth many other men for the cutting out of arrows and the spreading of soothing medicaments”.
- Indian physician Sushurta is credited with the most extensive literature on leeching in India.
- Leeches experienced their first hay-day in the middle of the first century thanks to the writings of Roman physician Galen who incorporated leeches as part of the system of elements, fire, earth, air and water.
- By the second century C.E Greek physician Antyllus was using leeches for many different ailments.
- Persian physician Avicenna unified humoral theory with leeches in his cannon of medicine.
- Shortly after 1758 when Carl Linnaeus officially named the species Hirudo medicinalis hirudotherapy started to become popular throughout former USSR, as well as France, Germany and England in Europe.
- After the French revolution physician Francois Broussais brought leeches to the forefront of modern medicine at the time and leeching exploded. By 1835 fortunes were being made from leech breeding. In 1884 John Berry Haycraft demonstrated that medicinal leeches contained a substance that prevented blood from clotting even after it had detached.
- In 1904 C. Jocoby described and named the anti-coagulating agent found in the leeches head, he called it hirudin after the leeches name Hirudo medicinalis. In 1937, the international leech centre in Moscow officially opens and after further study on the medicinal leech, in 1957 Fritz Markwardt isolated the pure active anti-coagulant and determined it was a polypeptide, a potent antiprotease that specifically inhibits thrombin which is a main substance in clotting which can cause a number of health problems.
- In 2001 there was an attempt at creating an artificial leech that failed, and by 2004, Hirudo medicinalis was approved by the FDA and are also regulated by Health Canada.
- Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries leeching was at the height of it’s popularity in Europe, France imported about 40 million leeches a year and England imported about six million from France alone. It had also become popular in Asia and the Middle East.
- Between 1829 and 1836 5-6 million leeches were used in hospitals in Paris with about 84, 000 kg of blood removed per year. Demand got so high that a premium was offered in the USA to anyone who could breed leeches.
- With Russia in particular leading the way in hirudotherapy and the advent of antibiotics, western biomedicine and the labelling of any medicine not scientific as quackery, leeching started to decline in the 1930s.
- Even with the growth of promising research and applications for leeches, and the lengthy history of leeching, Western medicine frowned upon the leech in the middle to late 1900s as unclean amidst a sterile revolution in medicine and physicians became disenchanted with the leech.
- It didn’t help that a Russian president was reported to be using leeches to treat an illness which prompted America to denounce the practice of leeching as backwards and outdated like everything else in communist Russia.
- Throughout the 1900s until the 1980s when the leech made a resurgence in Western medicine in plastic and microsurgery, Russia, Poland and Germany in particular kept hirudotherapy thriving and continued to study the benefits of the leech. Today they are the forerunners in Hirudotherapy holding conferences attended by hirudotherapists from around the world.***
***[Source: Toronto Leech Therapy, excerpt from presentation "How Hirudotherapy Can Help Canadians: A Medical Anthropological Approach" 2014 Michael Mason, B.A. Anthropology&Sociology]