6. Bloodletting – the medical practice of deliberately draining blood – was commonly employed by doctors in the belief that disease was the result of an imbalance of the four humors
Bloodletting is the deliberate release of blood from a patient in an effort by a physician to treat a medical condition and is believed to be the most common practice performed by surgeons throughout history; beginning at the earliest emergence of medicine, bloodletting maintained this prominence until the 19th century over 2,000 years later. Performed for the purpose of balancing the humors, believed from the time of Hippocrates to have been four bodily fluids which influenced the health of an individual – blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm – an imbalance of these fluids was generally thought to serve as the primary cause of disease and disability; Hippocrates proposed the notion that female menstruation was a product of natural bodily efforts to “purge women of bad humors”, with Galen furthering such thought into active balancing through medical bloodletting.
Consequently, bloodletting was used to treat almost any and every disease or medical condition of the day and was achieved either through the stereotypical, but nonetheless historically accurate use of leeches or via cutting; interestingly, prior to the amputation of a limb it was medical belief that the amount of blood equal to that circulating in said limb should be drained to prevent an over-saturation of blood in the rest of the body. By the medieval period the practice had become fully entrenched within medical opinion, both European and Islamic, with “bleeding sites” identified for the most suitable penetrative regions of the body and religious guidance was provided recommending the most appropriate days to attempt bloodletting, namely saints days and religious festivals; in fact, George Washington, after contracting his ultimately fatal throat infection in 1799, was bled in a healing attempt, with the estimated 3.75 liters of blood removed from the former president across a ten-hour period likely hastening his death considerably, if not causing it.