For Those Troubled with Plenitude: The Reign of Quackery in a Modern World

by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

As some of my readers know, I’m a founding member of The Curiosity Society: a small group of collectors across the country who have “curiosity cabinets” jammed full of well-documented oddities of biological and cultural diversity pulled together during our lifetimes of travel and exploration.  (See my column: 23 September 2010.)  A recent addition is probably one of the most peculiar items in my collection.  It’s a 19th-century artifact called a bloodletter.  Specifically, it’s a spring-loaded lancet: a nasty little device that has a disconcerting vampire-like quality to its operation.  A sinister medical instrument with a still-shiny metal blade, it has probably “bitten” into the limbs of dozens of ailing patients now long dead.  In fact, before I fully understood its spring mechanism, I nearly zapped myself with the lancet’s primed blade as I fiddled curiously with its release button!

Bloodletting, sometimes called phlebotomy, is one of the world’s oldest medical practices.  It began with the Egyptians nearly 3000 years ago, spreading into Greek and Roman culture and then into Medieval Europe before reaching its zenith in the United States and Europe in the 19th century.  Bloodletting was deemed a restorative procedure for cleansing the body of ill-defined impurities and excess fluids.  As one 17th text explained, the procedure had many uses, among them “to lessen the abundance of blood [for] those troubled with plentitude.”  What an eccentric, but telling, phrase!  Not until Louis Pasteur discovered microorganisms as the causative factor in diseases and Oliver Wendell Holmes declared the lancet a “magician’s wand of the dark ages of medicine” was the quest for cures redirected and bloodletting relegated to the status of quackery.

In fact, bloodletting was so potent historically in Western society that a modern vestige of the practice can still be seen: the common barbershop pole, an early symbol of phlebotomy.  While being phlebotomized by barber-surgeons, English patients would squeeze a pole to improve their blood flow.  Subsequently, the poles were often stained red with blood.  When not in use, they were hung as advertisements outside the doors of the business with a blood-stained tourniquet wrapped around them.  (Now that could not have been very sanitary!)  A brass bowl was placed on top of the early poles to symbolize a leech basin, and one on the bottom to represent a blood-collecting dish.  Thus, the vestige of a one-time influential pseudoscience lingers on countless street corners throughout contemporary America.

Its influence even brought down a president.  Bloodletting was the probable cause of death for George Washington.  He died in 1799 within 24 hours of the onset of acute laryngitis despite the best efforts of his physicians – who likely drained nine pints of blood during that period to help cure him.  Typically, phlebotomists drew off one to four pints from their patients.  Was it desperation that possessed Washington’s doctors to extract so much fluid in so short a period of time?  For us moderns, it’s almost incomprehensible that the cause of death of our founding president was bloodletting!

Yet the annals of history are filled with our penchant for quackery: bloodletting, astrology, so-called “creation science,” dianetics, occultism, parapsychology, phrenology, and the like.  President Abraham Lincoln, grief-stricken with wife Mary Todd Lincoln, conducted a series of séances in The White House to communicate with their dead eleven-year-old son Willie.  A more modern example is the much-discussed dependency of President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy on soothsayers for state-related decisions.  In the face of a personal or national crisis, it’s easy for some – even our most venerated leaders – to turn to horoscopes and snake oils, especially those quacksalvers with a patina of scientific authority, for absolute direction.  Yet, as the late Martin Gardner and others aptly pointed out, at any one time or place, the percentage of persons who cannot live without their superstitions is a relatively fixed constant.  Only the myths change.  In other words, yesterday the prevailing quackery was bloodletting; tomorrow it will likely be some other bogus belief with its own peculiar lot of charlatans and devotees.

One could argue that ours is an age, perhaps like every other age, “troubled with plenitude.”  A plenitude of biological and cultural diversity, of natural resources, of material wealth, and, of course, of competing myths about a vast universe and our role in it.  We are part of an enduring search for meaning that is thousands of years old – and still no definite answers despite our best, and our worst, efforts.  Yet that search has provided us wonderful insights about the natural world, including the human mind and heart.  Perhaps Mohandas Gandhi said it best: “Truth resides in every human heart, and one has to search for it there, and to be guided by truth as one sees it.  But no one has a right to coerce others to act according to his own view of truth.”


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  1. Dr. R- How did I must the Curiosity Society? Remember too that the brass barber bowl worked well as the “Golden Helmet” of Don Quixote! When windmills were at peace, Sancho would carry the knights gear.

  2. Great article, Dr. Rinker! What a fantastic time we had at our recent meeting of the Curiosity Society! I would encourage all to start a curiosity cabinet of their own AND for their children. Collecting curosities is such fun as well as a conversation piece. The best part is learning the history behind artifacts and cultures as you eloquently described in your article. Thanks for sharing and I still can’t believe I allowed that bloodletter to get away after pining over it for so long! 🙂

  3. What an interesting article~! I found a website on all the different Bloodletting Antiques such as the lancet and fleam that you will probably enjoy! You must go look…..>

    Personally I would prefer the long-used alternative of the leech to the lancet or scarificator ….LOL!

    This article was very interesting and entertaining. It definitely opened up my curiosities on the subject! Thanks for sharing with us!!

  4. Its hard to imagine the torture sick patients went through in the 17Th and 18Th century.The so called Doctors laughed at being Sanitary , washing their hands and having clean Instruments How many patients died from the cure and not the disease.Thank God we live in the time we do .

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