Bedale’s House For Leeches

Travel

On the banks of the Bedale Beck, in the small market town of Bedale in North Yorkshire, stands one of the most unusual historic buildings in the whole of UK. Between the late 18th and the early 19th century, this small brick building was used to store medicinal leeches used by local doctors for bloodletting, a common procedure for treating a variety of ailments.

The local apothecary kept leeches alive in special containers using fresh water diverted from the river flowing just a few feet from the small castellated building. Moist turf and moss inside the container provided the leeches something to hang on to. In winter, a fireplace kept the leeches warm and snug and prevented the water in the containers from freezing. Food, however, was not included because these bloodthirsty suckers can survive for surprisingly long time, sometimes up to a year, without feeding. Keeping them hungry was also desirable as they made the creatures more efficient at sucking blood.

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The Bedale Medicinal Leech House. Photo credit: Rosser1954/Wikimedia

Bloodletting was used as a form of treatment for more than 2,500 years, until the late 19th century. It was a cure for everything—acne, cholera, epilepsy, gangrene, indigestion, sore throat, smallpox, tuberculosis and hundreds of other diseases, even heart breaks. 

In one particularly bizarre case, a certain French sergeant was stabbed through the chest while in combat and fainted from loss of blood. When he was brought to the hospital, the doctors immediately bled him 570 ml, and another 680 ml during the night. Early the next morning, the chief surgeon bled the patient another 285 ml, and during the next 14 hours, he was bled five more times. More than half the volume of blood in the poor fellow’s body was let out by doctors, in addition to the initial blood loss which brought him to the hospital in the first place. After two weeks and many more bleeding sessions, when the wound refused to heal, doctors brought some leeches and applied them to the most sensitive part of the wound. First thirty two leeches and then forty sucked at the wound. Miraculously, the sergeant survived the ordeal and walked out of the hospital three weeks later despite losing 6 liters of blood from his body.

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Leeches were kept in the pharmacy in leech jars like this. Photo credit: Wellcome Trust

Leeches became especially popular in the early nineteenth century. Initially leeches were harvested from bogs and marshes by walking a horse through the marshes and then collecting the leeches that attach themselves to the horse’s legs. Frequently, the collectors themselves—many of which were women—would collect leeches using their own legs. It was not until 1835 that a method of breeding medicinal leeches was perfected in France. By then, the demand for leeches was so high that the French imported about forty million leeches a year, and in the next decade, England imported six million leeches a year from France alone. Through the early decades of the century, hundreds of millions of leeches were used by physicians throughout Europe to suck diseased blood out of ailing humans.

Bloodletting and the use of leeches gradually declined in popularity over the course of the 19th century, and the Bedale Leech House ceased to be used for their storage. Today, it is the only surviving leech house in the UK.

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The Bedale Medicinal Leech House. Photo credit: Rosser1954/Wikimedia

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