The word leech is derived from the Old English word “laece,” or doctor, and Syrian physicians reportedly first used leeches for bleeding as early as 100 B.C. This was a painless and efficient way of drawing blood since the leech excretes several hormones including one to anesthetize the bite, one to dilate vessels to insure flow, and a third, hirudin, to act as an anticoagulant.
Hirudo medicinalis, or the European leech, was plentiful in swamps and thousands were imported into the United States from Europe following the work of French physician Broussais, who advocated the use of this little parasite to restore imbalanced humors in almost every imaginable disease, both physical and mental.
Leeches were transported in pewter or silver carriers, placed on various predetermined areas of the body, and were often directed toward difficult to reach places such as the mouth, larynx, ear, conjunctiva, rectum, and vagina by way of small glass leech tubes. (top left to right) glass, silver, and pewter pot a sansues by Niolas Bolceroise (1790–1810); (bottom) small glass leech tube