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Dimensions:
190 × 135 mm
208 pages
Format:
Paperback
ISBN:
9781780230337
Illustrations:
115 illustrations, 72 in colour
Published:
14 Jan 2013
Series:
Animal

Leech Robert G. W. Kirk, Neil Pemberton

A friend and a fiend, the leech is one of nature’s most tenacious yet mysterious animals. Armed with razor-sharp teeth and capable of drinking many times their own volume in blood, these formidable worms are an unlikely candidate to turn to as a cure for sickness. Yet that is the role leeches have played in both Western and Eastern medicine throughout history. Today they continue to be used in post-operative care, helping to heal the body after reconstructive surgery.

Leech explores how these surprising animals have helped us to overcome illness, forecast the weather, and better understand how our brains and bodies work. However, for every leech that brings hope, there has been a sinister twin. From Bram Stoker’s Dracula, through twentieth-century film, to twenty-first-century video games, leeches have come to represent the worst in human nature.

In Leech, Robert G. W. Kirk and Neil Pemberton reveal how these fascinating creatures have been one of humanity’s most enduring and peculiar companions.

‘Kirk and Pemberton are as fond of their subject as those bygone physicians, but they are particularly interested in its cultural symbolism. While there is plenty of solid science in this book, the most distinctive sections deal with the psychology of being bled, and our temerity for daring to equate the leech with all things nasty in ourselves.’ – TLS

‘This book shies away from the facile association of leeches with parasites to view them, instead, as a symbiotic relationship with humankind, whereby both man and leech have benefited from the creature’s extraordinary abilities. This short but rich volume thus explores the leech as both animal and symbol, from ancient medical remedy to modern horror film, from emblem of capitalism to biomedical tool . . . Well illustrated and engagingly written . . . the authors ably tie their historical and cultural research to the natural history of the leech, offering an interesting perspective on the history of science.’ – British Journal for the History of Science

‘The authors’ aim to go beyond the human point of view is what makes the book a compelling read. It is not just a reiteration of the leech’s role in medicine and nature, but a constant blurring of boundaries – between them and us, biology and culture, science and society. However, the most captivating thing about the book is this: while the steady stream of fascinating information about leeches counteracts our deeply-ingrained fear and feelings of disgust, a reader’s newly found admiration is severely put to the test by accompanying images of leeches writhing on human skin, sucking blood . . . it is precisely this tension between images and text that constantly forces the reader to reflect on the ‘why’ of their reaction, leaving the culturally conditioned, almost somatic responses to battle it out with the growing appreciation
of this wonderful animal. This is the kind ofbook that is not passively consumed; rather, one cannot but actively engage with the authors’ imperative “Let us learn to love the leech!”’ – Social History of Medicine

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Robert G. W. Kirk is a Wellcome Research Fellow in the Centre for the History of Science Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester.

Neil Pemberton is a Research Associate in the Centre for the History of Science Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester.