There was a time when physicians resorted to leeching patients for many forms of illness, “Alderlassen,” or blood letting was explained in most issues of the almanacs published well into the last century and the art of blood-cupping, though no longer in good respute, is still practiced in some quarters.
Modern readers may be surprised to learn that the leeches which thrived in the streams and marshes of eastern Pennsylvania were considered the most serviceable variety in America in colonial times and leech catching and marketing was once a profitable enterprise in these parts. The writer remembers his boyhood in Adamstown and the many “bloodsuckers” that had to be contended with in swimming in Muddy Creek; then the smaller streams were infested with them but now they seem to have disappeared along with the wild pigeons.
Later in the 19th century, practitioners of leeching preferred to use a variety imported from Sweden; the European Leech being a hungrier fellow than our native product.
Stock Sometimes Died
Francis A. Ulle, who in 1893, practiced leeching on South Ninth Street in Reading, imported his stock in lots of 100. They came to him packed in a black loam in kegs, especially adapted for the purpose. Many of the reptiles were dead when they reached Ulle and if doctors did not send him a sufficient number of patients the whole consignment died and his entire investment proved to be a lose.
As the practice of prescribing leeching fell into disfavor there was less and less demand for Ulle’s services and he abandoned his business in 1893, or rather he abandoned his side line and stuck to barbering only. In this connection it is interesting to not that barbering and surgery were closely related trades during the Middle Ages – for who was more skilled in handling of knives than the barber? The applying of dressings and bandages also fitted the barber’s trade; even today the red and white stripes of the barber pole are a vestige of the days when the barber applied surgical dressings and the red-white ribbons were symbolic of bandages.
Practice has Disappeared
Generally speaking, Ulle applied leeches to patients only on doctor’s prescription, but occasionally patients who felt that leech cure had served them well the first time, came to Ulle’s shop, long after doctors discontinued recommending such treatment.
There are many details connected with the application of the leech which need no recounting here. We offer this account merely as one more echo of the passing scene.
Freshwater Leech, Macrobdella decora