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peculiar persistence: leeches in western medicine

The leech has been a long-standing companion of humans in therapeutic practices worldwide. This research looks at the surprising persistence of this peculiar animal in Western medicine, from the historical heyday of leech use in the first part of the 19th century to its recent revival in niche hospital practices. By the 1820s, leeches were a central therapy from rural to hospital medicine. This demand created a massive trade network that stripped the leech from their natural wetland habitats across Europe.

The human association with the leech slowly faded and by the close of the century it came to be considered an emblem of antiquated practices. From the 1980s onwards, the leech started to slowly return into modern medicine, for example in reconstructive and plastic surgery. The long history of the leech in human medicine makes it a useful case study to explore an evolving human-animal relationship in the management of health.

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