Yes, the ancient form of medicine that was believed to cure illness or disease. Bloodletting was based on the principle that blood and other bodily fluids had to be in balance to maintain proper health. It involved the draining of blood from a sick person in the belief that the person will be cured of his or her ailment. This practice was adopted universally by surgeons for almost 3000 years, right until the 19th Century in Europe, North America and Asia. Another thing to add to our list of pseudoscience.
The medical nature of this practice might suggest that it was, much like lobotomies or cough syrups with marijuana or heroin, something that could be solely done or prescribed by doctors. Instead, bloodletting was carried out by barbers more so than physicians. The red and white stripes on a barber’s pole would indicate that those barbers carried out bloodletting-the red symbolized blood and the white symbolized bandages. These poles that can be seen in barber shops even today are derived from the practice of bloodletting.
Bloodletting was used for almost everything. According to some British medical text, bloodletting was recommended for acne, cholera, asthma, indigestion, diabetes, convulsions, plague, smallpox, scurvy, stroke, tetanus, gout, herpes, jaundice, insanity, leprosy, pneumonia, tuberculosis and over a hundred other diseases. Until 1942, medical textbooks recommended bloodletting to treat pneumonia. Heck, it was used to treat nosebleeds, menstruation, childbirth and amputations as well.
George Washington supported bloodletting. After he had developed a throat infection from weather exposure, he asked to be heavily bled. Within 10 hours, 3.75 Litres of blood were withdrawn from his body just prior to his death in 1799.
So Why Was Bloodletting So Popular?
In short, because of the placebo effect. Patients thought that they were getting better and this did help them feel better psychologically. Physicians thought that doing something is better than doing nothing at all. According to Hippocrates, bloodletting was modeled on the process of menstruation. Menstruation purged women of bad humours and in the same way, those humours that ailed men could be purged using bloodletting.
Although the side effects of bloodletting are harmful, it is still used in Ayurvedic, Unani and traditional Chinese medicine. There are some cases where draining blood may be helpful like polycythemia and hemochromatosis, but it must be administered by a professional doctor. Do read how Chinese medicine uses tiger’s penis as medicine and other quackery.