Leeches, mercury and quackery

One of the more absurd treatments of old was blood letting. Barbers were once honorary surgeons, because of their skill with a razor and releasing blood. Did you know about the snobbery of English surgeons, who still like to be called “Mister”, instead of doctor, in honor of this old tradition? Even women surgeons of today, in Britain, are called “Mister” (and not “Madam).

It’s hard to see how blood letting ever came about. We can draw parallels, however, with other more primitive and ridiculous allopathic treatments of today. Many will also be seen in the future as just plain barbarous and indefensible quackery.

By the way, I don’t say this often and you may not have heard me remark that the word “quack” is actually a derisory term for a treatment that ONLY allopathic doctors have ever been guilty of (Quackbusters, take note).

The German word for mercury is quacksilber (our word “quicksilver”). It was used in olden times as a highly toxic treatment for a variety of conditions. A “quack” was somebody who used mercury. Only allopathic doctors have ever used this treatment, to my knowledge. So the only “quacks” are allopathic doctors. Betcha didn’t know that!

Right up until the early 20th century, mercury had some use against syphilis, before Salvarsan was developed by Paul Erlich. It has made a very unwelcome appearance in a variety of allopathic medicines since. So-called pink disease (acrodynia) in babies, common through the early part of the twentieth century, was caused by—of all the insane things—mercury (as calomel) in babies’ teething powders! I mean…

So, that’s a digression about the origin of the word “quack”. No alternative healers, to my knowledge, have ever been “quacks”. Ha!

Right, back to blood letting. Leeches were one of the most repulsive treatments of former times. Leeches were applied to suck out the patients’ blood. The anti-coagulant hirudin, which the creature injected into the bite, was the source of further bleeding.

Most of you know I lived for a time in Sri Lanka and there worked with the late Pandit Prof. Dr. Sir Anton Jayasuriya. In my tenure as professor of nutrition, I watched him use leeches as an acupuncture stimulant. Well, I had to admit it was less crude and invasive than needles. It was, after all, Nature. My wife and I got sucked on by leeches in the mountains, so I can assure you they are very much “in Nature”!

The truth is, leeches have got a pretty bad rap. They were the real poster girl of stupid, dangerous medical follies. They showed up in Hollywood movies as the real “bad guys”.

So would you be surprised to know that leeches are back and have been used in the USA, by modern surgeons, right now as I write this? I bet you would.


Well, take a look at this video from the PBS program “Nova”. You’ll be surprised at this very modern application of leeching. The patient was also delighted, as you will see.



  1. Dear Doctor Keith,
    I kind of like you, think you’re doing a good job.
    As to the mercury thing – check out the fact that in Tibetan medicine, many so called ‘toxic’ materials are used including mercury. But these substances go through a rigourous detoxification, which I don’t think is accepted by modern science; pity.

  2. During the plagues in Europe the physicians who went to treat people with infections, wore cones on their faces. At the tip of the cone were essential oils as it was noted that perfumers never got sick. This way they were able to treat sick people and not catch what they had. (Of course it may or may not have deterred the fleas that carried the diseases). So because they walked around with these cones on their faces they looked like ducks (I would have thought birds) so they were called “Quacks”. And leaches have been used for some some time now in aiding transplanted fingers toes and the like to help the capillaries heal and preventing gangrene.

  3. good article, thank you…..I am German, living in Canada and I just would like to tell you that the German word is : Quecksilber for mercury!! and years ago we bought leeches in Germany and brought them into Canada for ‘treatment’ and the doctors who applied them were ‘out there’ called ‘quacks’!! Whatever, if everybody keeps informed (which is now possible through the net) and listens to their bodies ‘language’, we can empower ourselves to find what helps. The detour back to the healthy highway, is as varied as the GPS info, depending on your ‘starting point;
    Thank you so much for all your information, much appreciated.

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