Pharmacy Fact: Bloodletting Found Not as Successful as Previously Thought

Although bloodletting had been praised by medical professionals for more than 2 millennia, not all patients were as enthused at being purged of their blood as their physicians were, regardless of the claims of its efficacy.

Although bloodletting had been praised by medical professionals for more than 2 millennia for its ability to cure a variety of health concerns—from smallpox and epilepsy to madness or a broken heart—not all patients were as enthused at being purged of their blood as their physicians were, regardless of the claims of its efficacy.

One such less than enthusiastic individual was the poet Lord Byron, who, when suffering from a particularly unpleasant cold, had a battle of wills with his physicians regarding his desire to keep his blood inside his body. They insisted that to heal his cold, the answer was contrary to his stated desires.

After several days of refusing their lancet, explaining it had never brought him positive results before, Lord Byron eventually gave into their nagging, proclaiming, “Come as you are; I see a damned set of butchers. Take away as much blood as you will but have done with it.”

After several pints of his blood were expelled from his body, Lord Byron’s physicians were shocked to find that his symptoms did not improve. In order to speed the recovery process, they decided to blister his skin and apply leeches on his head around his ears.

Unfortunately, shortly after this additional treatment regiment, Lord Byron died. The physicians made notes as to the cause of his quick demise following their treatments, explaining that it was entirely the fault of Lord Byron, who had staved off their lancet for far too long to have given their remedy the time it needed to work.

Another victim of bloodletting was George Washington, who came down with a fever after riding when it was snowing. Since he had trouble breathing, his physicians immediately went to action by heavily bleeding him, then having him drink a thick beverage of molasses, vinegar, and butter, then blistering his skin, and then bleeding him some more. When this didn’t work, they moved on to laxatives and emetics, with another bleeding while his body was processing both of these, for good measure.

After a day of his illness not improving, his physicians decided the clear course of action was even more bleeding than before. They proceeded to pull from his veins an estimated 5 to 9 pints of blood. Shortly after this treatment, Washington died, with physicians noting that regrettably, there was truly nothing more that could have been done to save him.

Bloodletting was also commonly used to revive women who had fainted, with a notable example occurring after Marie Antoinette gave birth. Lying in her bedroom in front of a room of courtly observers, the queen fainted, with her physicians quickly jumping to release her of her blood to bring her back to good health. However, luckily for Antoinette, they did not bleed quite enough to also bring about her death.

Charles II of England was less fortunate. In 1685, King Charles began having “fits” while he was shaving, and his 14 physicians ran to his aid to help him regain his strength. In order to do so, they first bled him, then gave him several enemas, then fed him purgatives, then applied hot cups to his skin to release toxins, then made him eat the gallstone of an East Indian goat. When these remedies did not bring about the desired results, they proceeded to create a poultice of pigeon excrement, which they applied to his feet.

Unfortunately for King Charles, this pigeon-dropping poultice was not the cure he needed either. Certain of their need to take quick action, the physicians decided copious bleeding was the only solution, so they slit his jugular veins to quicken the process. Ashen and white, the king was nearly bled dry of all his blood before he died.

REFERENCE

Kang L, Pedersen N. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. New York, NY: Workman Publishing; 2017.