The Mechanical Leech – better than the real thing?
By Jack Ashby, on 31 July 2012
One of our team of post-graduate researcher/engagers (see what that’s all about on last week’s post) has been talking about the connection between species in the Grant Museum and a nineteenth century mechanical replica, which was designed as a clinical tool.
It’s on the new Researchers in Museums blog, but to pique your interest here is how Sarah Chaney starts the post off…
“Leeches! Leeches! Leeches!”
So ran one particularly enthusiastic nineteenth century advertisement for the animal that has had the most enduring association with medical history. So much so, that one inspired individual decided to make a mechanical version of the creature. During my public engagement sessions in the Grant Museum, I’ve tried asking various visitors to guess what animal the fist-sized metal box was designed to emulate: no one has yet hit on the right answer, even though I usually stand right in front of the leech cabinet. Shiny, clean and angular, where the leech is squat, wet and slug-like, there would appear to be little comparison between the two.
Indeed, that was the claim of certain nineteenth century leech advocates, who deemed the miraculous little creature itself far gentler than lancet, fleam or scarifier (also called a scarificator: the “mechanical leech” in the illustration, left). The leech secretes a substance called hirudin, which stops the blood from clotting, meaning that one small bite will continue to bleed for around 12 hours after the leech has been removed. I know this well, for, in the pursuit of medical history, I have been leeched not once, but twice, and still have the (tiny) scars to prove it!
You can read the rest of Sarah’s post on their blog here: http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/researchers-in-museums/2012/07/09/leeches-leeches-leeches/