Dr Judith Harvey: Eye of newt and toe of frog?

4th September 2023 by Dr Judith Harvey

Dr Judith Harvey: Eye of newt and toe of frog?

A friend’s story: when he was a teenager an eye was severely damaged by a shuttlecock. One conservative treatment after another failed. The consultant decided to try surgery. But he couldn’t see to operate for the blood. He found a way to keep the operating field clear. My friend’s eye and some sight was saved, and he asked the surgeon for a certificate on headed paper to confirm his treatment. Why? He used it to win bets with medical students who didn’t believe that leeches were still in use.

That was 1958. Therapeutic bloodletting, which had contributed to thousands of deaths, was finally abandoned at the end of the nineteenth century. But leeches still had a bad press. In 1973 when I took off my boots after a day in the jungle of Papua New Guinea, I watched fascinated and somewhat horrified as the blood trickled from several punctures. And went on trickling. I felt no pain and discovered that leeches had wriggled in through the lace holes.

Yuck warning: I’m going to talk not just about leeches, but also maggots, spiders, slugs and snails, if not puppy dog tails. Many ancient medical practices were consigned to history when 20th century technology came up with convenient, modern alternatives. But they were expensive. And they didn’t solve every problem. As my friend’s surgeon came to realise.

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