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The Leech and the Physician: Biology, Etymology, and Medical Practice with Hirudinea medicinalis

The Leech and the Physician: Biology, Etymology, and Medical Practice with Hirudinea medicinalis

By Robert N. Mory, David Mindell and David A. Bloom

World Journal of Surgery, Vol.24 (2000)

Introduction: Word histories often reflect an underlying social history. The Old English verb “thrall” goes back to the Anglo-Saxon period when slavery was a fact of life; the verb meant to place someone in a position of servitude. The modern English verb “enthrall” has a figurative vestige of that original sense: to fascinate or to capture one’s imagination. A word with a complex linguistic history is quite likely to have a fairly complex social history as well. Such is the case with “leech.” The word “leech” came into use early in the history of the English language and had two distinct meanings: the medical practitioner and the blood-sucking worm. Of course, medical use of the leech antedated by centuries its mention in Old English (the Anglo-Saxon language); the first written reference to leeching seems to be that found in a medical poem by Nicander of Colophon (185–135 BC), a Greek poet and physician. The close association of the leech and the medical practitioner was therefore established early, and it lasted well into the nineteenth century.

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