History of Phlebotomy

Ancient Bloodletting History

Phlebotomy wasn’t always the precise science it is today. The Egyptians, Romans and Greeks all experimented with blood extraction to rid the body of evil spirits. In the age of Hippocrates, 5th Century B.C. barbers used red and white that mirrored the colors of blood and tourniquets to advertise their practice.

People could walk inside the barber shop for a haircut, tooth extraction, surgery or to undergo a bloodletting procedure. It was believed that draining blood was one of four effective treatments — including starving, vomiting and purging – that could cure most ills. The lancet was the primary tool, which made a shallow cut.

Early US Phlebotomy Procedures

Bloodletting came to the U.S. with the pilgrims in the 18th Century. Spring-loaded lancets were fired into veins in multiple locations around the body for deeper cuts. Typically, one to four pints were drawn into shallow bowls and the treatment was stopped once the patient became faint. Of course, this didn’t always work out perfectly.

In 1799, George Washington, our nation’s first president, died from a throat infection after doctors drained nine pints of blood. Numerous incidents like this over the next hundred years perpetuated the belief that bloodletting was nothing more than “quackery”.

Nevertheless, surgeons tried to improve the technique over the years. In their practice, veterinarians used a device called a fleam, a wooden stick that drove a blade into the vein. A scarificator, twelve spring-driven blades that could make many shallow cuts at once, was viewed as a more humane way to retrieve blood. Heated air cups created a vacuum that made blood flow into flint glass cups more readily.

Phlebotomy Science Today

Today, bloodletting is only used to treat rare ailments like hemachromatosis and polycythemia. Phlebotomy science is invaluable for diagnostic reasons and is considered a life-saving procedure for determining diseases, disorders and illnesses. Only trained medical professionals may draw blood in a hospital or private clinic setting nowadays, most requiring a degree or phlebotomy certification in order to perform blood draws.

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