Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Keeper of the Leeches or Essential Leech Research

My great Uncle Jimmy was the heavyweight boxing champion of Wales. I saw him once: he had a large gingerish moustache and a cross-looking face and my grandmother and mother were silent until he had passed. Uncle Jimmy, I learnt, had had one bash on the head too many and gone peculiar. Before that he’d been a happy sort of chap, staggering into the kitchen, docilely holding his head back when the swelling got too bad, and waiting until someone got the leeches.

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.
“What for?”
“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.


Blogger texbrit said...

ok actually you had me at the leeches and then I read about the snails and I'm hooked...I'll be back

Sun May 21, 08:41:00 pm  
Blogger Kay Cooke said...

That is so fascinating. Interesting too because we had a news item last week about a doctor over here using leeches. I found what you wrote so intriguing and informative.
Love the description of the teeth and the feel of the leeches on your hand. i don't know if I would be as brave - but you are a scientist and scientists are known to be inquisitive - insatiably so! And I'm glad they are because so much good has come of it.

Mon May 22, 07:05:00 am  
Blogger Jeremy said...

Nice to see a champion of leeches. Wonderful apothecary jar, too. We have a lot of eels around here (near Ely, which was named after them). I know that they are not related at all but I can't help associating these two slightly sinister, slimy creatures. Both have had a bad press and seem to repulse most people (people would much rather swim with dolphins for their therapy, generally), but they are equally absorbing.

Mon May 22, 03:42:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

textbrit: heh heh...look forward to your next visit, thanks for calling. Thought your description of being stung by a fire ant on your blog fascinating - makes me realise what nasty little beasts they are.

Chiefbiscuit: the surgeon I spoke to was an enthusiastic fan of the animals - they could design nothing better. They also use maggots for cleaning out ulcers - very effective and very selective - they go for just the diseased tissue, apparently, and leave the healthy stuff intact. Ain't nature wonderful?

Jeremy: yes, know exactly what you mean about eels - another fascinating animal. My son once had a pet tench, which reminded me a little of an eel (a fat one), I am convinced that animal was so determined it could have breathed out of water. I think the reason all these slithery things repulse people is because of the way they move. I believe humans are hard-wired to be repulsed by animals that writhe - a survival mechanism perhaps...Thanks for dropping by. You have a wonderful set of pictures on your blog.

Oh, yes, I forgot to mention - that small jar next to the leech jar is a vessel for internal leech application. Sometimes doctors used to use leeches internally and in this little contraption they were held in place while they took the blood and couldn't get lost after they had finished.

Mon May 22, 08:58:00 pm  
Blogger Jonathan Wonham said...

The greatest thing about the leech
Is that it don't live on the beach.

Mon May 22, 09:12:00 pm  
Blogger Jeremy said...

But what about Pontobdella muricata?

Thanks for your comments, Clare. Hope you liked the sky blog too.

Maybe it's the writhing, though I think slimyness is an important factor too (as with snails). People hate that.

I know a young lad who sometimes catches eels fishing. Apparently they wrap themselves around the rod and him if he's not fast enough to stop them. A scary thought considering the size of some of them aroun here. He assures me that they can also cover a large distance over land when the mood takes them Lets hope the leeches don't get the same idea.

Tue May 23, 09:58:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Jonathan: Thank you for that...I made me smile, and I'm still smiling now as I write this.

Jeremy: 'Pontobdella muricata' eh? I'll admit I had to google that one and came up with some very interesting papers, so thank you for that. But it is quite a nasty little creature isn't it? I saw one photograph of it feeding on the eye-fluid of a fish....which reminds me of perhaps the grossest thing (on the sliminess scale) I have ever seen was on a TV programme featuring some deep water worms which when caught seemed to convert most of their body mass to slime, which made a very effective deterrent.

...and thank you very much for that tale about eels wrapping themselves around fishing rods. That is spectacularly sinister and quite haunting.

Tue May 23, 09:45:00 pm  

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