British Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery (2004) 42, 133—137
Historical Article: Hirudo medicinalis: ancient
origins of, and trends in the use of medicinal
leeches throughout history
I.S. Whitakera,*,J. Raob,D. Izadic,P.E. Butlerd
aDepartment of Anatomy, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
bDepartment of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, South Manchester University Hospitals NHS Trust,
cAddenbrooke’s Hospital School of Clinical Medicine, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
dRoyal Free Hospital, London, UK
Accepted 30 October 2003
Summary Blood letting and the therapeutic use of Hirudo medicinalis date back to
ancient Egypt and the beginning of civilisation. Their popularity has varied over the
years, reaching such a peak in Europe between 1825 and 1850 that supplies were
exhausted. Towards the end of the century they fell out of favour and, during this
period, the leech, once used by the physicians of emperors and inﬂuential academic
surgeons, became associated with lay therapists and quackery. Leeches have enjoyed
a renaissance in reconstructive microsurgery during the last 15 years, having been
used by maxillofacial [Br. J. Oral Maxillofac. Surg. 41 (2003) 44] and other recon-
structive surgeons to aid salvage of compromised microvascular free tissue transfers
[Laryngoscope 108 (1998) 1129; Br. J. Plast. Surg. 34 (1984) 358], replanted digits
[Int. J. Microsurg. 3 (1981) 265], ears [Ann. Plast. Surg. 43 (1999) 427], lips [Plast.
Reconstr. Surg. 102 (1998) 358; J. Reconstr. Microsurg. 9 (1993) 327] and nasal tips
[Br. J. Oral Maxillofac. Surg. 36 (1998) 462]. Peer-reviewed evidence suggests that
the survival of compromised, venous-congested tissues is improved by early applica-
tion of a leech [J. Reconstr. Microsurg. 12 (1996) 165; Arch. Otolaryngol. Head Neck
Surg. 114 (1988) 1395; Br. J. Plast. Surg. 45 (1992) 235]. Leeches have also recently
been used to treat a wide range of conditions, including periorbital haematomas [Br.
J. Ophthalmol. 75 (1991) 755], severe macroglossia [Otolaryngol. Head Neck Surg.
125 (2001) 649; J. Laryngol. Otol. 109 (1995) 442] and purpura fulminans [Ann. Plast.
Surg. 35 (1995) 300]. The ﬁrst medicinal leech farm, Biopharm, was set up in Swansea
in 1981 by Dr Roy Sawyer, and now supplies leeches to hospitals all over the world. In
this paper, we summarise the history of treatment with Hirudo medicinalis from its
origin to the present day, and take a brief look at the possible future of the annelid.
© 2003 The British Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons. Published by Elsevier
Ltd. All rights reserved.
*Corresponding author. Present address: 8 Avonlea Road, Sale, Cheshire M33 4HZ, UK. Tel.: +44-161-962-7563.
E-mail address: iain firstname.lastname@example.org (I.S. Whitaker).
0266-4356/$ — see front matter © 2003 The British Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
134 I.S. Whitaker et al.
History of leech therapy
Hirudo medicinalis has stimulated human imag-
ination for centuries. Its intimate contact with
humans have provoked a somewhat symbiotic
relationship in which the leech feeds off humans
and humans use the leech for medicine, stories
and imagery in popular culture12,13 (Fig. 1).
It is impossible to note accurately the time when
man learned of the existence of leeches. How-
ever, we do know that both the annelid and the
doctor have been closely linked since the dark
ages. ‘Leech’ is derived from the Anglo-Saxon
word ‘laece’ which, when literally translated,
means physician. It is also important to note that
‘leech’ is etymologically distinct from the Latin
word ‘Hirudo’. The name Hirudo medicinalis was
assigned by Linnaeus in 1758.14 Linnaeus (also Carl
von Linné, 1707—1778) was a Swedish botanist,
physician and zoologist whose work laid the founda-
tions of modern biological systematics and nomen-
The ﬁrst recorded use of medicinal leeches
dates back to ancient Egypt and the beginning of
civilisation. Leeches can be seen in wall paintings
found in sepulchre of the 18th dynasty pharaohs
(1567—1308 b.c.). The ﬁrst written record of their
medicinal use has been attributed to Nicader of
Colophain (200—130 b.c.) in his medical poem
Alexipharmaca.15 In the 1st century a.d. there was
more extensive written reference to their usage.
About this time, Chinese writings described medic-
inal leeching, as did references in Sanskrit, Persian
Figure 1 Johnson, James Rawlins. ‘A treatise on the
medicinal leech’ (London, 1816) (History & Special Col-
lections UCLA Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library).
and Arabic literature. The Romans were also famil-
iar with leeches during this period, and it was they
who named them ‘Hirudo’.
Plinius, described and noted that leeches sucked
blood, and documented their useful effects when
treating ‘rheumatic pains, gout or fevers of any
kind’. He compared them with sanguisuga–—from
sanguis (blood) and sugo (I suck).
The Syrian, Themisson of Laodicae, a pupil of
Asclepiades16 advanced the use of leeches for blood
letting at the beginning of the Christian era. He pos-
tulated that evil spirits caused illness and removal
of these evil spirits required withdrawal of blood.
Galen (130—201 a.d.), physician to Marcus Aure-
lius, further advanced the practice of blood letting
through the development of his humoral concept
of disease. This concept built on one ﬁrst outlined
by Hippocrates (460—370 b.c.), who believed in the
rule of harmony and the theory that all body sys-
tems were in balance and that disease resulted from
Galen taught the importance of maintaining bal-
ance between the four bodily ﬂuids, or humours:
blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. Each ﬂuid
was associated with a speciﬁc personality charac-
teristic. The belief was that removal of the patients
blood would correct the humoral imbalance and re-
store good health. Alexander de Tralles (525—605
a.d.) even treated hearing loss with leeches, in ad-
dition to more novel treatments, such as the juices
of roaches. Avicenna (980—1037 a.d.), believed that
leeches drew blood from deeper sources than wet
cupping. His ‘Canon of Medicine’ included several
pages of instruction about leeches.17
In the Middle Ages, barber surgeons, armed with a
staff for the patient to grasp (so the veins on the arm
would stand out sharply), a basin to hold leeches
and catch blood, and a copious supply of linen ban-
dages, continued the practice of blood letting.
The blood stained linen bandages wrapped
around the barber’s pole in the wind was respon-
sible for the modern day red and white striped
pole outside some hairdressers salons. The earliest
barber’s poles were surmounted by a leech basin,
which in time has transformed into a ball on top of
Leeches were kept in special vessels that were
ﬁlled with water and had perforated tops to let
them breathe. Early leech jars were glass (Fig. 2),
and later ceramic, and were often beautifully dec-
orated and highly prized collectors’ items. For
house calls, physicians would often carry small
glass or pewter containers containing a dozen or
so leeches.18 Leeches were better tolerated than
other methods of blood letting (e.g. the ﬂeam and
the scariﬁer19)(Fig. 3) as the pain of the bite was
Hirudo medicinalis: ancient origins of, and trends in the use of medicinal leeches 135
Figure 2 Bossche, Willem van den. Historia Medica
far less painful than the wound inﬂicted by the
other two methods. The ﬂeam consisted of a blade
cocked by a spring mechanism, and was also known
as a spring lancet. The scariﬁer was used to make
several cuts in the skin at one time, and a bleed-
ing cup was placed over the abrasions. In general,
leeches were considered to be of greater beneﬁt
when blood had to be removed from a part of the
body where a lancet or cup could not be used,
such as ‘haemorrhoidal tumours, prolapsed rec-
tum and inﬂamed vulva ... watching that they did
not creep out of reach within any of the internal
cavities, as serious results might ensue’.27
In France, under the inﬂuence of Broussais
(1772—1832), head doctor of the Val de Grˆ
pital in Paris and surgeon in Napoleon’s Grande
Armée, the use of leeches spread rapidly.
Figure 3 ‘Bloodletting man’. The Calendar of Re-
Figure 4 François-Joseph-Victor Broussais (1772—
Broussais has been referred to as ‘the most san-
guinary physician in history’20 (Fig. 4). He proposed
that all diseases resulted from an excess build up
of blood and alleviation of this condition required
heavy leeching and starvation. French physicians
would commonly prescribe leeches to be applied
to newly hospitalised patients even before seeing
them.21 Leeches became the therapeutic agent
par excellence, and even inspired fashion. Fe-
males wore imitation leech decorations; ‘fastidious
ladies ... used to deck their dresses with embroi-
dered leeches’22 and their cosmetic uses included
enhancement of their pale complexions.
During this period in Russia, Mudrov and Di-
adkovsky were equally enthusiastic about using
leeches. They reported that phlebotomy with
leeches achieved excellent results in various con-
ditions, including inﬂammation of the cerebrum,
liver and kidney disease, rheumatism, tubercu-
losis, epilepsy, hysterics and sexually transmit-
ted diseases. Contraindications to the treatment
were not mentioned, and it seemed that they
treated patients irrespective of age and state of
The use of leeches became so popular during this
period that the species became endangered in Eu-
rope. Patients were prescribed up to 80 leeches a
session. Russia consumed about 30 million leeches
annually. In 1833 alone, French doctors imported
almost 42 million leeches, and the annual consump-
tion approached 100 million. The ever increasing
demand made prices soar, and the French govern-
ment granted awards to companies who could im-
prove production by developing new stocks from
marshes, streams and ponds. Leech harvesting be-
came a popular way of earning money, and people
136 I.S. Whitaker et al.
waded into ponds and then removed and sold the
leeches that had become attached to their feet and
In Germany, they shipped an estimated 30 million
leeches annually to the United States, and German
authorities too became concerned about the ability
of the country to meet domestic needs. European
leeches were preferred to their American counter-
part, Hirudo decora, as the American leech did not
make as deep or as large an incision and drew less
blood. Americans were having difﬁculty in obtain-
ing European medicinal leeches, and in 1835, a $500
award was offered to anyone who could breed Eu-
ropean leeches in the United States.23
By the end of the 19th century, the leech had lost
its popularity. This is well illustrated by the records
of a certain English hospital, which stated that in
1832 almost 100,000 leeches were used, whereas
50 years later the number had fallen to less than
2000 leeches.24 Their therapeutic use did not ﬁt
into the emerging modern concepts of medicine.
There was now an increased emphasis on exper-
imental methods and stringent restraints on em-
pirical methods. With the development of modern
physiology, pathology and microbiology, leeches fell
out of favour, not only with physicians, but also
with patients. During this period only occasional
references can be found with regard to removal of
Haycraft25 brought leeches back into mainstream
thinking with his discovery in 1884 that a pure anti-
coagulating preparation was contained in the saliva
of leeches which he named ‘Hirudine’ from the
Latin ‘Hirudo’. In hindsight it seems that Haycraft
simply conﬁrmed an earlier observation made by a
Russian, Professor Diakonov. In his article Changes
of human blood in the leech in 1809, he wrote
that ‘lack of blood coagulation and dissolution of
red blood corpuscles in the leech’s intestinal duct
testiﬁes that some dissolving agent exists there’.
In 1955, Markwardt26 isolated and accurately char-
acterised Hirudin from leeches’ pharyngeal glands.
It was not until 1986 that this potent anticoag-
ulant was ﬁrst produced in quantity by genetic
Medicinal leeches have recently been re-
discovered and are used by maxillofacial and
other microsurgeons to aid salvage of compro-
mised venous engorged tissue, including free
and pedicled ﬂaps, and amputated digits, ears
and nasal tips.2—8 Peer-reviewed evidence has
suggested that the survival of a compromised,
venous-congested ﬂap is improved by early appli-
cation of a leech.9—11
In 1981, an American biologist, Roy Sawyer, aban-
doned his academic career to found Biopharm Ltd,
a company in Swansea, Wales, devoted to breed-
ing and farming leeches and developing new drugs
for clinical use. Biopharm estimates that it sup-
plies about 25,000 leeches to the United Kingdom
and Ireland each year and 60,000 to the United
Researchers led by head and neck surgeon Gre-
gory Hartig at the University of Wisconsin at Madison
in the United States, are developing a mechanical
leech,28 which they think has distinct advantages
over its ﬂesh-and-blood counterpart.
They postulate that the device can deliver and
disperse the anticoagulant heparin better to com-
promised tissue, and the device’s porous tip, im-
planted just beneath the skin, rotates to inhibit co-
agulation further. The development team think that
the biggest advantage of the mechanical leech is a
psychological one, as patients seem to prefer being
attached to a machine than a live creature.
The ancient art of applying leeches still has a role
to play in contemporary reconstructive surgery, but
will the mechanical leech force its living counter-
part into retirement? Only time will tell.
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