More than 3000 years the practice of bloodletting was applied to cure a range of illnesses: intense headaches, constipation, abdominal pain, boils or fever… It was administered by barbers (they had sharp blades) and later by qualified doctors. Some of the famous who received this treatment were Marie Antoinette (when giving birth in 1778 to her daughter Marie-Therese) and George Washington in 1799 on the day of his death when doctors drew about 40% of his blood in an attempt to cure him from a severe throat infection. In Washington’s case, the bloodletting did not cure him and one can only wonder to which extent it had contributed to his death. In 1793 acute bloodletting by guillotine definitely caused the demise of Marie Antoinette.
Why did the bloodletting practice with its origins in ancient Egypt continue until a century ago as an esteemed medical practice? Two reasons:
- The existing paradigm considered bloodletting successful, elevating it to the realm beyond questioning or doubt. It was practised by all the trained practitioners. It was therefore not questioned. Respect for specialist insistence on accepted practice re-enforces paradigmatic reign. Even after the description of the circulatory system by William Harvey in 1628 it took three centuries before the practice of bloodletting was largely abandoned as an unproven cure. One of the most striking examples of this blind acceptance of so-called “expert opinion” is the 1500 years that Greek physician Galen’s doctrines were revered. Galen said of one of his cures: “All who drink of this remedy recover in a short time, except those whom it doesn’t help who all die. It is obvious that it fails only in incurable cases.“