The Keeper of the Leeches or Essential Leech Research
Someone got the leeches? Leeches? My grandmother had a taste for gore and told me in detail. They’d bite into you and suck away your blood, which was very handy for great Uncle Jimmy because sometimes his black eyes swelled up so much he couldn’t actually open them.
Swansea is still the place for leeches I found out a couple of years ago when I was researching for my last novel. The descendants of great Uncle Jimmy’s little helpers stock one of the largest suppliers of medicinal leeches in the world. They are used in plastic surgery to stop sewn-on parts becoming engorged with blood and dropping off again: although the thick-walled arteries can be joined, the thinner walled veins cannot. So until the veins re-establish themselves blood can come in but can’t come back out - hence the leeches.
However the woman at the leech farm obviously viewed my request to try one out with suspicion.
“I’m writing a book about a nineteenth century psychiatrist called Dr Hoffmann and there’s a very important leech scene.”
“I don’t see how we can help.”
“I want to feel one suck my blood.”
It was then that her voice changed; they didn’t do that sort of thing and no she couldn’t tell me any nearby hospitals that were customers either. After that I had the impression that the phone receiver had been replaced quite firmly.
And so the leech quest continued. Eventually, after many emails, letters and Google searches I arrived at a Burns Unit on Merseyside. An interview with a consultant there, Mr Kevin Hancock (who answered all my questions including ‘most funny leech story’), was followed by a trip to the pharmacy. Apparently leeches are ordered on prescription - two aspirins and three leeches - so the pharmacy is the logical place to keep them. And there I met Marina Jennick, a girl whose enthusiasm for our little squirmy friends is matched only by my own.
Leeches are truly remarkable creatures. They are kept on the sort of gel that is used to keep hanging baskets damp and they are kept cold and hungry. It is not a happy life. Once warm they move in the tank like molten wax in a lava lamp, transforming in water into flat strips of rippling tagliatelle, and on your hand they anchor themselves with an amazing and disturbing tenacity while their heads search for blood. For some time we admired them: the microscopically tiny three rows of teeth shaped like a Mercedes symbol to maximise blood flow; the strength of that grip; the chemical that prevents blood coagulation for at least twelve hours; and their functional elegance. They are beautiful because they are perfectly designed for what they do and apart from curing black eyes they resurrect lives that have temporarily fallen apart: the severed finger of the man at the vice, the skin graft of a child badly burned and the reconstructive surgery for a woman recovering from breast cancer. For controlled blood-letting after surgery the ancient medicinal leech is a distinctive cut above the rest.