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On a recent vacation in Maine my wife Alice’s daughter Sara suffered a blood-curdling experience. Or rather her beau Derek did: no sooner had he plunged into the lake near their rustic cabin for a swim than he came lunging out, shrieking with a leech latched onto a very personal part of his posterior – reminding me of the leech scene from the 1986 Rob Reiner film “Stand by Me,” which you can watch, if you dare, on YouTube. The incident, common enough in Florida waters too, made Sara “cringe” (the same word she’d used at age 3 when she first tasted grapefruit juice).
And no wonder. The critters, whose earliest fossil remains date back 400 million years, have been creeping out victims for eons. One name the Romans gave them was sanguisuga (as in SANGUine and SUCtion), literally “bloodsucker” – a word scary enough to make you pale at the thought, and inspiration for the name of the Ohio death metal band Sanguisugabogg. Worse even than having a leech suck your blood would be accidentally swallowing one, maybe while swimming: if that happens, the 1st-century A.D. encyclopedist Celsus advises in his book De Medicina (On MEDICINe), you should promptly wash it down with vinegar and salt.
Our own term “leech” comes, not from Latin, but from an Old English noun of uncertain origin that referred to bloodsucking aquatic worms. The image is so utterly noxious that the word centuries ago became a metaphor for bloodthirsty politicians, acquaintances who cling to you for personal gain, and those who take credit for another’s work. Alexandre Dumas tells us of female patriots during the French Revolution being called “leeches of the guillotine,” and Tennyson lamented his day’s swarms of “literary leeches.”
Flash forward some centuries to a memorable moment in the 1951 film “The African Queen,” so titled for the boat that was centerpiece to its action. We see Humphrey Bogart, after a treacherous river slog, back on her deck flailing around, with a heroic assist from Katharine Hepburn, to remove the “filthy little devils” lunching on his legs and torso. The actor hadn’t been at all happy with director John Huston’s wish to use real leeches in the scene and so they finally opted for rubber ones; there was a tank of actual leeches on the set, and one of the squirmy worms did appear in a quick close-up, but it was on the bug-breeder’s body, not Bogie’s.
I think I watched that movie with my mom and dad when I was 6 or so, likely at the drive-in. But far scarier for me was the el cheapo cult favorite “Attack of the Giant Leeches,” produced in eight days at a cost of only $70,000, which came out in 1959 when I was 13. Never mind that the “giants” were just low-paid actors in thin black plastic sack-suits, like garbage bags, with stitched on suckers: the flick, though panned by critics, one describing it as a “ludicrous hybrid of white trash and monster genres,” perfectly sated my teen appetite for shock-schlock. There were 1992 and 2008 remakes (both, like the original, now streaming on Tubi) that were apparently even worse, and an adaptation was staged in 2020 at The Village Theatre in Atlanta.
Real-life leeches, relatives of earthworms, are far more frightful than their cinematic figments. There are nearly 700 species – many of them here in Florida – in the Annelida subclass Hirudinea (from hirudo, the other Latin word for the creature), and their muscular segmented bodies, which can lengthen and contract, range in size from a half-inch to the 18-inch-long giant Amazon leech (Haementeria ghilianii). They are hermaphroditic and have powerful suckers at both ends. Most are equipped with 10 stomachs, 18 testicles, 32 brains, and about 300 teeth: Yikes! The commonest species feed on blood, puncturing their victims’ flesh, injecting first an anesthetic then an anti-clotting fluid, then feasting till full: Count Dracula would have certainly approved. A 2020 Florida Museum of Natural History publication calls them “underwater vampires.” Most live in freshwater but others have marine or terrestrial habitats; some feed on fish, shark, sea turtles, and even oysters, so you’d better beware wherever you venture!
And yet the creepy crawlers aren’t without redeeming qualities. They have been used by physicians for bloodletting, to balance our “humors,” from ancient times into the 19th-century, when local pharmacies kept the species Hirudo medicinalis on hand in leech jars. Egyptians thought they could relieve flatulence; Pliny the Elder recommended them for hemorrhoids. Modern medicine has employed leeches in microsurgery, plastic surgery, small limb reattachment, and other applications. Their secretions, which are now being man-made using recombinant DNA technology, are employed as anticoagulants.
In a February 2022 satirical piece, the “Borowitz Report” quoted Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo as saying “The ancient Egyptians used leeches in medical treatments more than three thousand years ago…. Unlike some quote-unquote vaccines, leeches have stood the test of time.” The spoof further “reported” Dr. Ladapo’s dismay when, during a visit to a CVS pharmacy, he found “plenty of masks and test kits, but no leeches… (not) even a leech aisle.” Gov. DeSantis, Borowitz concluded, “was mulling a leech mandate for Florida’s schools.”
You might even enjoy keeping leeches, not just for medicinal purposes, but as pets: one leech fancier has an informative website with lots of photos, and a YouTube video of feeding time, at leechqueen.tumblr.com/. And then there’s the Beijing woman who feeds her pet leeches blood from the fish she buys at her local market, according to an article in the South China Morning Post – which also noted that the leech-keeper’s parents found her “hobby” distasteful.
Speaking of taste, and lest we overlook the foodies among our readers: yes, you can eat leeches if you’re lost in the wilderness and starving. Or if you are a fancier of exotic foods. The leechqueen site has a recipe for stew, and a contributor on Quora suggests sauteing in butter with garlic and serving with a bottle of chianti. Though you may enjoy raw Apalach oysters on the half shell, consuming live leeches is not recommended, for reasons too easily imagined: but if you must, as the folks at outdoorsmecca.com advise, remove the suckers before eating and be sure to chew thoroughly. As for me, I might try a dozen or two battered and fried, but only with an OCBC Hooter Brown to wash ‘em down!
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin and Classics at the University of Georgia; his latest books are The Secret Lives of Words, a collection of his widely distributed newspaper columns, and Ubi Fera Sunt, a lively translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. He and wife Alice live part of the year in Apalachicola, under the careful watch of their French bulldog Ipsa.