Leeches have been used for bloodletting for centuries. In fact, they became so popular in the 18th and 19th centuries that they were almost farmed to extinction in Europe.
Although falling out of fashion in the later half of the 20th century, their medical use is making a comeback in microsurgery and reconstructive surgery due to the anti-coagulant properties of their secretions, which is useful for reducing blood clots and venous pressure from pooling blood, and for healing skin grafts. (Read more about medical leeches in this useful BBC article.)
But despite their usefulness, it still must have been an awful challenge to make leeches attractive from an advertising perspective. They are essentially little vampires shaped like long black boogers, which suction onto your skin and suck your blood out. I can think of few things less appealing.
I think these vintage advertisements are remarkable in the ways they’ve each tackled the problem, from the elegant botanical illustrations to the generous use of exclamation points which make ‘Leeches! Leeches!! Leeches!!!’ sound more like an exciting carnival ride than a slimy, parasitic worm that wants to drink your blood.
// Images via: The Brooklyn Public Library; Wellcome Collection; National Library of New Zealand’s Papers Past; Life As A Human; Swindon Collection Central Library, via Flickr; Cabildo Museum via Wikimedia Commons; Jane Austen’s World.
A special thanks to Dr Robert Kirk at the University of Manchester, for identifying the ‘Bloodletting with Leeches’ image above. Dr Kirk is currently undertaking a fascinating research project on the cultural history of the leech, and I encourage anyone with an interest in this topic to check out a brief but riveting survey of his work here.
leech jar: http://images16.fotki.com/v258/photos/4/43793/4388532/IMG_3129-vi.jpg
seen at the “drugstore” at Heritage Square in Los Angeles, CA
This is super. I work on Victorian Parasites so this sort of thing is right up my street! I’d be interested to look into the culture of medical advertising. I’ve seen some adverts for amulets that supposedly ward off parasitic disease!
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I love your post and this is new to me though leeches is bloodsucker and I didn’t know they used this in the field of medicine..Thanks for sharing it ^^
I love you post and this is new to me though leeches is bloodsucker and I didn’t know they used this in the field of medicine..Thanks for sharing it ^^
Can you please supply the source–archival collection or library–of the “Mr. & Mrs. Bese” trade card or advert? Am most eager to track this down! Thanks–
I originally found the image in an article by George Burden on Collecting Medical Ephemera (http://lifeasahuman.com/2011/arts-culture/history/collecting-medical-ephemera/), but I believe the original image comes from the Medical and Surgical Antiques Archive, administered by Alex Peck (http://antiquescientifica.com/archive30.htm).
This is a strange and wonderful coincidence to see you on my blog, Dr Hicks! I’ve actually been trying to get in touch with you about the possibility of meeting with you in August when I’m in Philadelphia to visit the Mutter. Do let me know if you might be up for a chat!
Thanks for this reply, Chelsea, very helpful. I am only now (2014!) checking this site and seeing your post for the first time. I suspect that I may have missed you, but if you are in Philly, please do contact me to see some ridiculously interesting stuff. Cheers, Robert Hicks
Great post, and with some superb images that I shamelessly stole for a presentation I’m doing for nurse prescribers.
Wow, this is amazing. I’ve read a little about the uses of leeches in medicine, and even about the current reappraisal of their usefulness, but I had no idea there was this sort of advertising. So fascinating! I’m especially amused by the invoice for “choice” leeches (if we shudder to think of using leeches, imagine using substandard ones), and the ad for Swedish and Hungarian leeches imported to New Orleans, as if their European provenance made them more effective or classier or something. By the way, I was startled by the idea of a cargo of leeches making an ocean voyage, so I just looked up the life span of a leech, and apparently it can live for years. I had no idea. Just to add to the ick factor, I’ll mention that I once read a murder mystery which included a man being drugged and placed in a bathtub full of leeches. :-)