Leeches for sale: The economy of bloodletting in France, 1827-1836

N8000057-Leech_use,_historical_artwork-SPLI found this great post on drug shortages that appeared in BMJ today.  Among all of the other great gems in it, was this incredibly interesting article on the creation of a mechanical bloodletting device. Jean-Baptiste Sarlandière, a French anatomist and inventor, created the “mechanical leech”, a device intended to extract a controlled amount of blood from the body. Sarlandiere intended the device to replace leeches, which were subject to increasing demand, were becoming expensive, were difficult to cultivate, and were subject to shortages in the Netherlands, who was a large producer of leeches at the time.

A paper was written on the device back in 2009, and within there is a dataset of leech imports and exports to France, which includes data on the monetary value of leeches and public consumption. Of course, I couldn’t resist pulling this data out and doing something with it (despite having better things to do.)

Here is the data, pulled from yet another paper (Alexandre E Baudrimont, Adolphe J Blanqui, et al.Dictionnaire de l’industrie manufacturie`re, commerciale et agricole, Paris, J-B Baillière, 1833–1841, pp. 25–30.):

Year Number of leeches imported Value in Francs National consumption Exports Import export ratio Value per leech
1827 33653694 1009611 33456744 196950 170.87 0.03
1828 26981900 809457 26689100 292800 92.15 0.03
1829 44573754 1337212 44069848 503906 88.46 0.03
1830 35485000 1064550 34745848 739250 48 0.03
1831 36487975 1094639 35245875 1242100 29.38 0.03
1832 57487000 1724610 55591700 1895300 30.33 0.03
1833 41654300 1249629 40785650 868650 47.95 0.03
1834 21885965 656579 21006865 879100 24.90 0.03
1835 22560440 676813 21323910 1236530 18.24 0.03
1836 19736800 592104 18721555 1015245 19.44 0.03


Of course, I am fascinated with this. The number of leeches exported from France rose during this period as did the market price of each leech. Though the entire industry would eventually collapse because other medical advances of the nineteenth century would supercede it, it is clear that increased demand and expense led to innovation to create devices to replace it. I don’t know whether the “mechanical leech” led to the development of other medical devices, but would like to think that even batshit ideas like how swamp worms draw out blood to cure any and all medical conditions would lead to the creation of methods which do improve health.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.
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