Bloodletting stems from an ancient system of medicine which theorises that blood and other bodily fluids were in fact ‘humours’. These ‘humours’ had to remain in balance within the body to maintain health. The four ‘humours’ were blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. An imbalance in these humours resulted in illness and disease. Only by restoration of the the humours could a patient be restored to health.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bloodletting (or bleeding) and cupping were popular practices. Whilst its roots lie in ancient medicine, it wasn’t until the 18th Century that bloodletting became a leading medical treatment. Not only was it a popular method, but it supposedly treated a wide array of medical conditions making it one of the most popular treatments of the time. By 1830 the demand for leeches in Britain had surpassed supply. Worcester Infirmary is believed to have used up to 16,000 leeches a year in its medical treatments! We now understand this practice as somewhat risky. Bleeding can lead to anaemia and worsen illness by reducing the volume of blood circulating around the body.
Leeches are a type of blood-sucking worm that live in freshwater. They have two suckers, one either end of their body and use the front sucker to suck the blood on which it feeds. Leech jars such as this this elaborately decorated one, would have been used to store leeches when not being used for treatment. There are holes on the lid to allow for an air supply.
This leech jar is on display in the Eighteenth-century Cures display case at the George Marshall Medical Museum.