Bloodletting – A Very Popular Medical Procedure

by | Nov 4, 2019

Life of George Washington, Junius Brutus Stearns, 1851

On December 13, 1799 George Washington developed a sore throat and fever after riding in snowy weather. Bloodletting was prescribed by his doctors and over the next 16 hours he was drained of half the blood in his body. He died a few days later on December 17th.

Bloodletting was an extremely common medical treatment for over 3,000 years. It was first used by the Egyptians, was popular in ancient Greece and Rome and and was prescribed by physicians in both eastern and western medicine through the mid-19th century. It was a common treatment for all sorts of ailments: fevers, rashes, heart problems, and even mental disorders.

Bloodletting is based on the ancient concept championed by Hippocrates that humans have four humors that must be in balance: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. Illness was thought to result from an imbalance of the four humors.”Each humor was centered in a particular organ—brain, lung, spleen, and gall bladder—and related to a particular personality type—sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholic, and choleric.” Source.

Bloodletting was accomplished either by cutting the arteries and veins in the arm or neck or via the use of leeches.

Stunningly, the practice of bloodletting persisted over a few thousand years even though it nearly always made patients worse. It wasn’t until the 19th century that bloodletting was evaluated in a systematic fashion and determined it wasn’t effective. In the 1820s Dr. Pierre Louis, the father of medical statistics, studied patients with pneumonia and recorded their mortality rates when treated with bloodletting in earlier vs. later stages of illness. His studies suggested that bloodletting was ineffective. Further studies by physicians in the mid-19th century using the scientific method repudiated the use of blood letting and the medical community stopped using it as a treatment.

From a modern perspective, the widespread use of bloodletting over thousands of years seems crazy. The advent of medical statistics and epidemiology represented a huge jump forward for the practice of medicine.

While human knowledge by necessity must build on what has been learned in the past, those ideas and beliefs that rest on unsound footing should be disposed of in the crucible of the scientific method. Science is not always correct – it is a process rather than a result – yet it leads us progressively forward.

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  1. “Bloodletting”/Phlebotomy is still an accepted method of treatment in patients with polycythemia vera. It is a rare condition that patients produce too many red blood cells which can lead to serious complications including stroke. Some of these patients require removing a pint of blood a week to control this condition.

    I however do not advocate bloodletting for treatment of a sore throat.

    • That’s interesting
      I also read that leeches are used to help circulation in extremities after some procedures.


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