We've seen it in movies, and read about it in books. A poor, sick person has their arm cut and the blood gathered in a bowl (remember that scene from Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility? Poor Marianne!) This is supposed to cure them of their ailments. Meanwhile, the reader or movie watcher is batting their head, going, "Are you crazy? Trying to kill them faster, or what?"
Bloodletting has been around since ancient times. The Egyptians, Mayans, Mesopotamians all used it to treat illnesses. One ancient Greek physician, Erasistratus, believed that illness occurred because of "plethoras" or overabundances in the body, that could be relieved by bloodletting, diuretics (medicines that make you urinate like crazy), or vomiting.
Apparently, some thought that women had the concept down without trying. It was believed that menstruation was the model way to remove bad humors from the blood.
Speaking of bad humors, we turn to this guy, Aelius Galen (129 AD- 199 AD).
blood (sanguine) = air = social, extroverted
black bile (melancholic) = earth = kind, creative
yellow bile (choleric) = fire = lots of passion and energy
phlegm (phlegmatic) = water = dependable and affectionate
(It's funny that blood is the "air" humor. Galen finally figured out that blood, not air, flowed through people's arteries and veins.)
He also promoted the idea of bloodletting to maintain the proper balance of humors. Depending on the ailment, blood would be removed from the left or right side of the body, at a particular time, in a particular quantity, from particular vessels that corresponded to certain organs.
What a fussy doctor, that Galen.
Bloodletting was used to treat every disease under the sun, and persisted into the early 1900s, even being recommended by Sir William Osler. (You know this guy. He helped found Johns Hopkins Hospital and helped define what became 3 hellish years of not sleeping or eating, aka medical residency. Oh, he also said that people are pretty useless over age 40 and recommended "chloroform at age sixty" but we'll skip over that for now. #OslerFail)
Two last fun tidbits about bloodletting before we stop.
You know the barbershop pole above? Though bloodletting was often prescribed by physicians, it was the barbers who did the deed. The red stripe represented blood; the pole was the stick that patients gripped during bloodletting to make the veins stick out, and the white was the cloth tourniquet used.
And finally, will all this laughing over how archaic bloodletting seems, maybe you'll be surprised to hear that bloodletting is still used today for very specific diseases.
Hemochromotosis is a condition where people have iron overload in their body. As red blood cells are a principal carrier of iron, regularly scheduled phlebotomy (the modern word for bloodletting or removing blood from the veins, for lab tests for example) can cause a relative iron deficiency, which treats the disorder.
Polycythemia vera is a condition where people make too many red blood cells. It is treated with regular phlebotomy as well, along with other available treatments.
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