Instruments, Bloodletting, Blood, Body, Medical, Lancets
Bloodletting, the removal of blood from the body, has been practiced in some form by almost all societies and cultures. At various times, bloodletting was considered part of the medical treatment for nearly every ailment known to man. It was also performed as punishment or as a form of worship to a Superior Power or Being. It still retains therapeutic value today, although only for an extremely limited range of conditions. In early attempts to extract blood from the body, the skin was penetrated in various places with a sharp instrument made of stone, wood, metal, bristle, or any other rigid material. When it was recognized that a vein visible on the surface of the skin as a blue-green stripe contained blood, the vein was incised directly. To facilitate “breathing a vein” and to provide greater safety, more refined and sharper instruments were devised. As theories supporting bloodletting grew more complex, so too did the instruments.
Spontaneous forms of bleeding, including nosebleed, menstruation, and those instances produced by a blow to any part of the body, apparently inspired the earliest human bloodletters. The Egyptians claimed that the hippopotamus rubbed its leg against a sharp reed until it bled to remove excess blood from its body. The Peruvians noted that a bat would take blood from the toe of a sleeping person when the opportunity presented itself. A deer, and goat, would pick a place near its diseased eye for relief. The methods employed by animals increased interest in using artificial methods for letting blood in man.
The devices man has employed to remove blood from the body fall into two major categories: (1) those instruments used for general bloodletting, that is, the opening of an artery, or more commonly a vein, and (2) those instruments used in local bloodletting. Instruments in the first category include lancets, spring lancets, fleams, and phlebotomes. Associated with these are the containers to collect and measure the blood spurting from the patient. In the second category are those instruments associated with leeching and cupping. In both of these methods of local bloodletting, only the capillaries are severed and the blood is drawn from the body by some means of suction, either by a leech or by an air exhausted vessel. Instruments in this category include scarificators, cupping glasses, cupping devices, and many artificial leeches invented to replace the living leech.
Much effort and ingenuity was expanded, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to improve the techniques of bloodletting. In the eighteenth century, delicate mechanical spring lancets and scarificators were invented to replace the simpler thumb lancets and fleams. In the nineteenth century, as surgical supply companies began to advertise and market their wares, many enterprising inventors turned their hand to developing new designs for lancets and scarificators, pumps, fancy cupping sets, rubber cups, and all manner of cupping devices and artificial leeches. If we also consider treatments related to bloodletting, in which blood is transferred from one part of the body to another, without actual removal from the body, then we can add the many inventions devoted to dry cupping, irritating the body, and exhausting the air around limbs or even the entire body. Although many physicians continued to use the traditional instruments that had been used for centuries, many others turned eagerly to the latest gadget on the market.
Bloodletting instruments, perhaps the most common type of surgical instrument little more than a century ago, are now unfamiliar to the average person. When one sees them for the first time, one is often amazed at their petite size, careful construction, beautiful materials, and elegant design. One marvels at spring lancets made of silver, thumb lancets with delicate tortoise shell handles, and sets of hand-blown cups in the compartments of a mahogany container with brass and ivory latches and a red plush lining. Those finding such instruments in their attic or in a collection of antiques, even if they can determine that the instruments were used for bloodletting, often have no idea when the instruments were made or how they were used. Frequently a veterinary spring lancet or fleam is mistaken for a human lancet, or a scarificator for an instrument of venesection. Almost nothing has been written to describe these once common instruments and to place them in historical context. Historians who study the history of medical theory usually ignore medical practice, and they rarely make reference to the material means by which a medical diagnosis or treatment was carried out. It is hoped that this publication will fill a need for a general history of these instruments. This history is pieced together from old textbooks of surgery, medical encyclopedias, compilations of surgical instruments, trade catalogs, and the instruments themselves.
The collection of instruments at the National Museum of History and Technology of the Smithsonian Institution contains several hundred pieces representing most of the major types of instruments. Begun in the late nineteenth century when medical sciences were still part of the Department of Anthropology, the collection has grown steadily through donations and purchases. As might be expected, it is richest in bloodletting instruments manufactured in America in the nineteenth century. One of its earliest acquisitions was a set of four flint lancets used by Alaskan natives in the 1880s. A major source for nineteenth-century instruments is the collection of instruments used by the members of the Medical and Chirurgical Faculty of Maryland, a medical society founded in 1799. The Smithsonian collection also includes patent models of bloodletting instruments submitted to the U.S. Patent Office by nineteenth-century inventors and transferred to the Smithsonian in 1926.
Because we have made an effort to survey every major type of instrument related to bloodletting, it is hoped that this publication will serve as a general introduction to bloodletting instruments, and not merely a guide to the Smithsonian collection. With this goal in mind, the catalog of bloodletting instruments has been preceded by chapters surveying the history of bloodletting and describing, in general terms, the procedures and instruments that have been used since antiquity for venesection, cupping, leeching, and veterinary bloodletting. In the course of our research we have consulted several other collections of bloodletting instruments, notably the collections of the Wellcome Museum of London, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, the Institute of the History of Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University, the Howard Dittrick Medical Museum in Cleveland, and the University of Toronto. Illustrations from these collections and references to them have been included in the cases where the Smithsonian collection lacks a particular type of instrument.
|Written By Audrey Davis and Toby Appel|