Introducing the newest members of Doctor Clift’s Hospital

Posted By on February 7, 2011

Meet Sippy!


Meet Gulpy


Meet Glugger!


Around Christmas, a fellow reenactor gifted me these handsome creatures- leeches!  A teacher he was doing an interpretive class day with had purchased them for the class to learn about, but was just going to dispose of them.  Knowing someone who would surely love to have these fabulous creatures, he took them home and placed them in a mason jar with a lid made of cloth to allow air to get to them.   Another reenactor friend delivered them a few days later.

Leeches were used in the 18th century for bleeding patients in the hopes of readjusting the 4 humours (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood.)  If any one was out of joint, a myriad of tasks could be performed to realign these to balance, including enemas, emetics, and bleeding as the top 3 options.  It is seen that bleeding is one of the primary ways to re-balance the humours.  Leeches would be tempted to bite the body with sugar water or a smear of blood, and once their teeth dug into the skin, they would pull “bad blood” out of the body, which in some cases was was a better way of bleeding than the typical lancet or blister application (cupping.)  For bleeding children, leeches were regularly used.

Leeches do have their downside- you never know how much blood they will take.  When colonists found medicinal leeches in lakes and streams here in America, they were very excited, especially due to their size (up to 9 inches long!).  However, and perhaps it was due to not being bred to the task for centuries, the American leech would take less blood.  It would regularly take 6 American leeches to draw an ounce of blood, whereas a single European leech could take that and keep going.

Because of their tempramental nature in keeping leeches alive, it seems to be uncommon for these to be used on military campaigns or long travels. Local physicians and Apothecaries would have a leech container in their shops, and would have a small travel case for short trips for home visits. Leeches are most comfortable in temperatures between 45 and 70 degrees farenheit, and need to have their water changed regularly, very much like fish in an aquarium (25-25% per change, every week on average).  They do not need to eat regularly- every 45-60 days is sufficient, and they can actually go up to a year without eating.  As my leeches are not getting a diet of human blood, I provide them a chicken liver to pull the blood out of approximately every 50 days or so.  They love it.

In the 18th Century, the same leech would be used for its entire lifespan (upwards of 6 years) on various patients for various ailments.  They were particularly efficient in removing blood from hematomas in sensitive areas (eyes, mouth, nether regions, etc), but could be used for any illness the physician saw fit to use them for.  Today, with the understanding of germs, bacteria, viruses, and bloodborn pathogens, Medicinal leeches are a single use item.  Like Mosquitos, they can carry disease from one person to another if used in that manner.  I currently have a volunteer to demonstrate the use of leeches, but if I were to do that, they would become X’s leeches. So it may not happen.  I’m still debating.

The Idiots guide to leeches!

The amazing thing to me is the fact that leeches are still used today in modern medicine.  While not used to actually remove significant amounts of blood, they are actually used for their saliva’s anticoagulant properties.  Once the leech has finished its activity, the anticoagulant will continue bleeding at the bite location, for up to 6 hours afterwards.  This is beneficial, according to my handy dandy leech guide that came with my leeches, for venous drainage- after digit reattachment, reconstructive, or plastic surgery.  My guide also tells me that leech therapy today is typically used for 3-7 days until the venous drainage is complete.

And the book also has some fabulously gross case study photos, that I may end up keeping out at events just because they’re so fabulous.  I may just bring them out for presentations and lectures, however.

And the coolest thing that I learned from this book, is that you can get a leech mobile home!

Maybe I should have named them variations on Bubba

For only $139, I can get a specially designed container, called a Leech Mobile Home, to carry my leeches and allow for easier care!

And there are 2 sizes, regular and mini…so its like a singlewide and doublewide!

I have to admit, it is really neat to see them swim around, and use their suckers to move from one part of the jar to another.  Its also awesome to see them suck the blood out of the chicken liver.  Two Hours and that thing went from pink to grey, and my leeches were happy happy!!  I can’t wait to feed them again!

Sadly, I don’t think they’ll make it out to many events, because of their temperature specifications.  Air conditioned events and early season events (March/April) will be their main appearances.  And I do need to get a period leech bowl for them, so I don’t get the “I didn’t realize Mason Jars existed in the 18th Century!”

I also need to come up with more period correct names.  While I think sippy, gulpy, and glugger are perfect names, I should come up with something for during presentations that are more  appropriate.  That being said, I could use some suggestions.

About the author


3 Responses to “Introducing the newest members of Doctor Clift’s Hospital”

  1. Crispus Attucks says:

    Leeches contain antibacterial substances:

    “In this study, we report the primary and secondary structures of two new antibacterial peptides, theromacin and theromyzin, isolated from the body fluid of an annelid, the leech Theromyzon tessulatum. Interestingly, both molecules do not present significant similarities with other known molecules. Theromacin is a novel cysteine-rich antimicrobial peptide, and theromyzin constitutes a new anionic antibiotic peptide. In an experimental model of infection, we obtained evidence for an enhancement of transcription levels of both genes in specific tissues that could be assimilated to the fat body of D. melanogaster. We have found that peptides are released massively into hemolymph where they might exert their antimicrobial activity by a systemic action. These data, reminiscent of the Drosophila antimicrobial defense, are the first reports of antimicrobial peptide induction by a specific tissue in a lophotrochozoan.”

    reference: The journal of Biological Chemistry

  2. Doctor Clift says:

    Interesting about the antibacterials as well! Also good for wounds! Thanks!! And Thanks for being the first legit comment!

  3. Noah Briggs says:

    Leeches were demonstrated in the historic documentary “Victorian Pharmacy”, available in all four episodes on YouTube (in fifteen minute chunks).

    Wanna Geek out?

Leave a Reply