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Glass leech jar, Europe, 1851-1900

Leeches were used in bloodletting – a practice once carried out to treat a wide range of diseases and medical conditions. Leeches were such a popular treatment that by 1830 demand for them had outstripped the supply. They are a type of worm with suckers at both ends of the body although only the frontal sucker, which has teeth, is used to feed. Once attached to a living body, they feed on blood. Leeches normally live in freshwater and collecting leeches from river beds was traditionally a female occupation. This unusual glass jar was specifically designed to house leeches. It has a number of inward pointing hollow glass tubes that terminate in tiny air holes which were intended to provide structures that the leeches could attach to as well as ensuring a supply of fresh air.

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Glossary: leech jar

Jar for keeping leeches in with pierced cover

Glossary: leech

A type of worm that possesses suckers at both ends of its body. Formerly widely used for letting blood, the medicinal leech may now be used following microsurgery to encourage the growth of new capillaries. Leeches are found in tropical forests, grasslands and in water.

Glossary: bloodletting

Puncturing a vein in order to withdraw blood. A popular medical practice for over two thousand years. Bloodletting often involved withdrawing large quantities of blood in the belief that this would cure or prevent many illnesses and diseases. The practice has been abandoned for all but a few very specific conditions.