It's no secret that ancient medical practices left something to be desired. They were terrifying procedures that rarely fixed the problems they were intended to. The everyday practices of a barber ranged dramatically. For example barbers would lance boils, extract teeth, administer enemas and fire cupping sessions or set broken bones. The not so basic included amputating limbs for various reasons, trepanning which is the practice of drilling holes in a person's head to let out evil forces that cause mental illness and bloodletting. All of these were performed by barbers until 1745 when a bill was passed that split surgery off from barbering. After this time barbers still performed smaller services. Only recently, in the late 19th century, has bloodletting been discredited as a successful treatment. Surprisingly, there are a few exceptions today.
To really understand why bloodletting started you have to look at the basics of medicine and disease in pre-American times. Back then the belief was that the human body had four "Humors": Blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. These humors each correlated with different organs. Having any illness meant the humors were unbalanced, or so they thought. To correct this imbalance barbers would use numerous methods such as attaching leeches to the skin over the organ thought to be inflamed or scraping the skin with a tool that housed a few small knives called a fleam.
By releasing the humors the body was thought to then rebalance and correct itself. The most common technique involved taking blood from the median cubital vein at the elbow but many other veins were used as well.
Eventually, in the mid 1800's, these practices were concluded by Dr Pierre Louis to be less helpful than previously thought. His claims were solidified by his peers more and more over the years that followed but not before our first president George Washington became ill and received multiple bloodletting services which many believe led to his death. Today bloodletting is referred to as phlebotomy and used in western medicine to treat disorders such as Hemochromatosis, a disorder in which the body absorbs too much iron and doesn't have a way to get rid of it and Polycythemia, which is a rare type of blood cancer that causes the blood to thicken and move slower. We've come so far in medicine but maybe in a few hundred years we'll look back on some of today's practices as barbaric as well.
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