overall: 17 7/8 in x 12 in x 9 in; 45.4025 cm x 30.48 cm x 22.86 cm
jar, leech, apothecary
United Kingdom: England, Staffordshire
Leeches have been used in medicine since ancient times, but it was during the 19th century, when bloodletting represented the nation’s premier medical theory, that leeches were employed by physicians on a massive scale. It is for this reason that the period was known as the time of “leechmania.”
Bloodletting is a dangerous practice involving the draining of a patient’s blood flow. It was believed that weakening the body through the reduction of blood flow treated a variety of disorders, especially fevers and inflammatory diseases. Medicinal leeches, bloodsucking aquatic worms with unusual mouth structures and special saliva that serves as both an anesthetic and anticoagulant, were used along with such surgical instruments as lancets and fleams to drain blood.
This fancy 19th-century display jar was used by a pharmacist to highlight his supply of medicinal leeches. Holes have been cut into the lid to allow for air, and the pharmacist stocked the jar with leeches intended for sale that day. The jar’s elaborate presentation indicates the high value leeches held as a commodity during this period, as they were sold in great numbers to members of both the medical profession and the public.
Bloodletting, often criticized during its time, quickly fell from favor due to the advent of new, more effective, medical techniques and understandings. Leeches are still occasionally used in modern medicine, although in a much different manner. Today they are primarily used in reattachment surgery and skin grafts.