In 2004 the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of leeches for medical treatment, so jars like this one from the DAR Museum’s collection could start becoming more commonplace. For thousands of years, leeches were used for bloodletting, a common medical procedure dating back as far as ancient Egypt. It was thought that too much bile in the bloodstream caused sicknesses and thus illnesses could be cured or averted by letting blood, often in very large quantities. Even George Washington received this popular treatment, which was thought to cure a wide variety of illnesses and even headaches, obesity and mental illness. The use of leeches peaked in the early 19th century, particularly in Europe, causing the species to almost go extinct.
This jar, which would have been found in an apothecary shop, dates between 1820 and 1840 and was possibly manufactured by Leeds Pottery in Yorkshire, England.
The use of leeches in treating sick patients has made a comeback in recent years, but not for bloodletting. Today leeches are used to draw excess blood from reattached limbs. The benefit of leech therapy isn’t the amount of blood a leech can draw, though. Leeches can draw only about two teaspoons of blood before getting full. Instead, the powerful anti-clotting agent contained in leech saliva keeps blood flowing for hours.
American Spirit, Volume 140, No. 2, March/April 2006, Page 11
Photo by Mark Gulezian/QuickSilver