What is a Scarificator?
Bloodletting remains to be one of the oldest and far-reaching medical practices of all time. Before the development of the spring-loaded scarificator, veins in a patient’s arms and neck were cut into. The procedure as a whole was extremely slow and painful (patients probably didn’t smile like paintings would lead you to believe!). First developed in the 1700s, a device known as the scarificator gained incredible popularity by the 19th century (“From the Collection”). The tool was a compact metal box which contained between 4 to 16 concealed blades (“Scarificators”).
(Image credit: Phisick.com)
The spring-loaded blades were held against the desired area where they could quickly create uniform parallel cuts in the skin. The scarificator was usually used in conjunction with a set of cups that were heated and placed over the skin. As the cups cooled down, they created a vacuum, drawing more blood to the surface (“From the Collection”). Although this sounds like a horrifying ordeal, the reason that the device had become so popular was due to the fact that patients claimed it to be less painful then alternative bloodletting methods.
George Washington and Bloodletting:
Did you know that George Washington was a strong advocate for bloodletting? Upon waking up with a throat infection in December of 1799, Washington called for his physicians. In under 16 hours, his team had drained an estimated 40% of his blood (Cohen). Despite their best efforts, George passed away a few days later (Cohen).
Scarificators were used throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Civil War physicians continued to make use of various bloodletting tools including fleams, scarificators, and lancets. Venesection, or vein cutting, fell out of popularity by the end of the 19th century as medical knowledge increased. Many road-side antique stores in the United States carry these odd box-shaped devices. Just be careful that one isn’t loaded before touching. Ouch!
If that doesn’t make you thankful for modern medicine then I don’t know what will!
Until Next Time
Bloodletting image from The Medical Book by Clifford A. Pickover, pg. 32.
Cohen, Jennie. “A Brief History of Bloodletting.” History. 29 August, 2018. Accessed 1 September, 2020. History.com/news/a-brief-history-of-bloodletting.
“From the Collection: scarification.” Museum of Healthcare at Kingston. Accessed 1 September, 2020.
“Scarificators.” Phisick: Medical Antiques. 14 November, 2020. Accessed 1 September, 2020. Phisick.com/article/breathing-a-vein/scarificators.