A Drop of Blood to Cure You

A Drop of Blood to Cure You

In my ongoing quest for knowledge, I did a little research on the practice of bloodletting, and found some interesting bits of information.

I have always thought that this practice was a foolish way of treating illnesses, so I wanted to know why it was believed in and practiced for centuries.  One of the reasons correlates the 4 humors with the 4 elements, blood – air, phlegm – water, black bile – earth, yellow bile – fire. If the elements are out of alignment, then there needs to be a balance, therefore the theory was believed that if there was an excess of one of the humors, causing an off balance, they needed to be brought back into alignment to cure the body.


Another justification was based upon a woman’s menstrual cycle.  The belief was that the woman bled to purge her body, so to bring the body back into alignment.  Therefore, the releasing of blood was thought to be a healing process.  It was also believed that the blood just sat in the body, not circulating, therefore it would stagnate and cause illness.  By bloodletting, it allowed fresh blood to enter the area, making the person healthier.  Different areas of the body were believed to contain the blood for certain organs, such as releasing blood from the right hand would aid in healing liver problems, while blood from the left hand would aid the spleen.  And the more severe the illness, the more blood had to be let.

It was interesting to note that, while he acknowledged the practice, Hippocrates preferred dietary techniques over bloodletting.  He felt that exercise, sweating, reduced food intake, and vomiting would do more in healing the person than bloodletting.

It was Galen who first discovered that the arteries, which had been believed to contain air, actually carried blood, making the quantity of blood in the body greater than had been believed previously.  Therefore, if it were believed you had an excess of blood before this discovery, afterward, you REALLY had an excess of blood.

It was even believed that a specific day of the week would be beneficial to certain illnesses.  There were charts made showing the specific bleeding sights on the body, and how they aligned with the planets and zodiacs to be more effective in healing a person.

Leeches were also commonly used, usually left in place until they had drained enough blood to cause fainting.


Some of the instruments used were horrifying.  One such instrument was used for scarification.  It was a metal box containing multiple blades, mechanically operated to puncture the skin.  It is nasty looking.


Very few diseases were not on the list of supposedly curable by bloodletting or leeches.  Everything from acne to diabetes, cancer to indigestion.  My favorite is scurvy.  A disease which is caused from a deficiency in the blood, not having enough vitamin C, is supposedly cured by draining blood from your body.  Yep, I can believe that…NOT!

Even though, by the middle of the 19th century, doctors had proven that bloodletting was not a cure all, many doctors refused to change their ways and embrace more modern methods of healing.  Bloodletting was still common in the early 1900’s.

For some treatments, the patient was sent to a barber for bloodletting.  Interesting was to learn what the barber pole actually meant.  The red was for blood drawn from the body.  White was for the use of a tourniquet. And the pole itself represented the stick that the patient held in their hand, squeezing it to assist in dilating the veins.  For the poles I have seen with a blue stripe, I am afraid to ask what it represents (haha).

Well, that is a brief study of some of the beliefs behind bloodletting.  I am so glad this is no longer a practice.

27 Responses to A Drop of Blood to Cure You

  1. Eww, those tools are awful! –Of course, medical leaches have their uses today, and I’d like to go to one of those Russian stores in Brooklyn where you can get leaches applied to your feet or toes to promote circulation!

  2. Medical history is a passion of mine as well. I love the topic! So many of the ancient devices are very scary looking. I personally think the “cupping” apparatus are the weirdest.

    If anyone is interested, I have a Pinterest board devoted to historical medicine. Lots of bizarre pictures and info there! Here is the link: https://www.pinterest.com/sharonlathan62/historical-medicine/

    I find it fascinating that the majority of past medical treatments were based on theory and science. Obviously the science and theories were dubious, or flat out wrong, but we only know that NOW. Medicine, like all sciences, builds upon what came before. At least people were recognizing illness and disease, and trying to figure out the cause and how to treat it. The only way to get to where we are now was to “dig inside” (pardon the visual, but I mean that literally!) and try something out, no matter how ridiculous it may have sounded.

    Love this post, Melanie. But then I’m one of those weirdos who isn’t at all squeamish. LOL!

  3. I have always said that despite my love of historical novels, Jane Austen’s in particular, I am so blessed to live in a modern age. But we have a long way to go. I have earned my 3 gallon pin for donating blood but can no longer do so as I now have chemotherapy pills I take daily. AND I wonder what that is doing to my body. I do know one of the side effects is fatigue so I can empathize with others who suffer any type of fatigue. At least I am able to function. Thank you for this educational piece.

  4. I agree with your last sentence. I have read about this topic before but I learn something new about the barber pole. Thanks for sharing the interesting information, Elizabeth.

  5. Phew – thank goodness that particular ‘cure’ is no more!!! I love reading the P&P variations but I wouldn’t like to live in that time. Thanks for the post though – I always like to read more details about life then.

  6. Melanie, Thank you! This is truly fascinating. I had wondered but never took the time to research the “science” behind bloodletting. Wow…

  7. Having suffered from menorrhagia during much of my adult life, the implications of anemia, fatigue and other problems that go with loss of blood due to this practice are not lost on me.

    It’s interesting to note however, that even today the information we have about our health continues to shift. Remember when we were told that “fat makes you fat” and that as long as you eliminated fat from your diet, you could indulge in all the “fat-free” goodies you wanted? And then there was the decades of being told that “margarine is better for you than butter” because butter was saturated and margarine was primarily unsaturated – until they discovered the horrors of transfats. I recently read an article that suggested that 50 years from now, chemotherapy would be considered a cruel and barbaric treatment for cancer. So although it’s easy to point our fingers at the bloodletting thing and say “how could they ever have thought this was a good thing?”, I suspect that it seemed to make perfect sense to them at the time. Hopefully, they’ll come up with one of those Star Trek doohickeys that can fix 90% of what’s wrong with you with one pass of the magic blue light.

    • Sad part was reading that even when proven that it didn’t cure, the doctors were so rigid to their ways and wouldn’t abandon the practice. How many lives were lost from doctors flagrantly disregarding the truth?

  8. Ewww, this makes me feel queasy! Very interesting post though. It seems mad to think that it seemed a good idea to weaken an unhealthy person further! Funnily enough my father has a blood condition that is treated by blood letting, it’s one of the few conditions where it’s an appropriate treatment, though thankfully the apparatus used these days is much less barbaric-looking!.

    • They talked about hypertension being treated, but due to the inability to accurately predict when the need for bloodletting, it wasn’t effective. Glad your father is being helped. Should show him the scarring box and jokingly as if he wants to try it. Not. Thank heavens for new instruments that are safer. Some of the tools were dangerous looking.

  9. I’m not usually so freaked out by blood, but that box that can cut you in multiple places at once is…kind of terrifying. I couldn’t imagine sitting and knowing they were going to cut you to “cure you.” It’s interesting how different generations even today view doctors though. I’m all for getting regular check ups, going in if treatment at home doesn’t seem to work etc. but just a generation or two before me and everyone I know would rather lose a limb than go to the doctor.

  10. I’m not sure which would be worse — allowing them to use some of the tools or leeches. ugh. And to watch someone you love get weaker instead of better (due to loss of blood), that would have been tough.

  11. Very interesting topic, Mel. I, too, am appalled that they would think blood letting good for someone very ill in the first place. So sad what passed for medicine in years gone by. As someone who has to give blood a lot because I have hemachomatosis, I can say that giving blood makes me tired for days afterward. Unlike your hubby Jen Red, I feel worse for the wear not better. 🙂 I guess to each his own.

  12. Very interesting Melanie. I did a little research on blood letting for one of my stories and found that in early the early 1800’s, England hung on to that practice longer than they did on the continent even though there were two schools of thought in the medical profession at the time. On a more modern note, my DH gives blood regularly and says he feels really good after doing so. As for me, I’m keeping mine. Thanks, Jen

    • It was interesting seeing that though doctors knew it didn’t cure, they were so stuck in the practice that they couldn’t move forward.

  13. I remember reading something like this before, so I took a quick look on the web.

    “In the Middle Ages in France, a decree was issued banning facial hair in men.[citation needed] This led to the barber community’s becoming more organized. Later, their role was defined by the College de Saint Come, established in Paris circa 1210, as academic surgeons of the long robe and barber surgeons of the short robe. The red and white stripes symbolize the bandages used during the procedure: red for the blood-stained and white for the clean bandages. Originally, these bandages were hung on the pole to dry after washing. As the bandages blew in the wind, they would twist together to form the spiral pattern similar to the stripes in the modern day barber pole. The barber pole became emblematic of the barber/surgeon’s profession. Later the cloths were replaced by a painted wooden pole of red and white stripes. After the formation of the United Barber Surgeon’s Company in England, a statute required the barber to use a blue and white pole and the surgeon to use a red pole. In France, surgeons used a red pole with a basin attached to identify their offices.”

    • Thank you. More info. Yay!! Was interesting that the barber would do the bloodletting. And if the bandages were already red, washed or not, I don’t think I would want them used on me.

  14. I just…. I think it’s too late, or way too early for me. I’m all squeamish now. And I’m not the squeamish type. Lol! 🙂

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