About Leeches

The History of Leech Therapy

Leech therapy, also called Hirudotherapy, is one of the oldest kinds of medical therapy known. It was used in the Orient about 3000 years ago. Thus we find leech therapy mentioned even in the earliest known cuneiform records of the Babylonians (1600-1300 BC). The most extensive records about leech therapy are the old Sanskrit writings of ancient India (1000-500 BC). These explain the systematic breeding and use of leeches.

In early European medicine, the Greek physician and poet Nikandros of Colophon (200-130 BC) was the first to use leech therapy and to describe it in detail.

In Europe, leech therapy was systematized mainly through the efforts of the Greek physician Themison of Laodikeia (100 BC) who founded the School of Methodologists. Other notable practitioners who used leech therapy to heal various diseases were the Roman physician Claudius Galenus (129-199 AD) and later the Persian doctor Avicenna (Ibn-i Sina) (980-1037 AD).

During the Middle Ages, leech therapy had an established place in medicine, and its importance continues to today. Even the Ottomans (1500-1900 AD) used leech therapy intensively for various sicknesses and recorded their methods. Early in the 19th century, the French physician and surgeon Broussais used leech therapy for almost any disease, sometimes using up to 100 leeches for one treatment. This excessive use sometimes caused serious injuries and occasionally led to the death of a patient. With such excessive use, several million leeches were imported each year in the mid-19th century – especially in France (100 million) and Germany (25 million). The Central European stocks were nearly exhausted and the natural habitat of the leech was reduced by developing industrialization and agriculture. At the end of the 19th century, the once great use of leeches nearly reached an end as the practice was criticized as “vampirism” by some and was no longer accepted by scientific medicine as a modern healing method.

Leech Therapy in Modern Medicine

Medical training took place at first only in clinics. This led students who were studying to become doctors to have very little contact with leech treatments, and leech therapy was therefore soon forgotten. In 1884, Haycroft was the first to discover a substance in the secretion of leeches which inhibited coagulation of blood. In 1903, Jacobi isolated the substance and named it “Hirudin”. Around 1910, Hirudin won its place as an anticoagulant in practical clinical work. The 1st World War broke out, and leech therapy and leech trade were forgotten again. The 1920s saw an upturn in leech therapy, in part due to the constitution therapy of B. Aschner and foremost because of its use in treating venous blood clots and burns. In 1922, the surgeon Termi used leech therapy to combat complications due to thrombosis and embolism which occurred after operations. Only a few years later, leech therapy was being used for this indication in many renowned clinics. In 1935, H. Bottenberg published his comprehensive book with 52 case histories, a book predominantly oriented to the needs of practitioners. His book is regarded as an international standard work even today. After the 2nd World War, interest in leech therapy was greatly reduced in Central Europe. First Heparin and then Marcumar were increasingly used in the treatment of thrombosis and embolism. Therefore, leech therapy was nearly forgotten. Since the 1980s, leech therapy has experienced an international rebirth and has been increasingly used in plastic and reconstructive surgery. Europe has experienced a growing proliferation of leech therapy in modern naturopathy, in human as well as veterinary medicine. Since then, respected university clinics have fortunately reported successful results of several scientific studies in the use of leech therapy in naturopathy.



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