Ever swallowed a leech by accident? Me neither. Here’s a tale told by Surgeon-Lieutenant T.A. Granger, a surgeon in the British army in India, in a letter to the British Medical Journal in 1895. It might make you a bit more careful about your drinking water next time you’re abroad:
Several days ago I received a note from the political Sirdar [a local leader], asking me if I would see a man who said he had a leech in his throat which he was unable to get rid of. I was somewhat sceptical, and thought that possibly the man might be labouring under a delusion. On going outside the fort to see the case, I found an old Pathan greybeard waiting for me. On seeing me, he at once spat out a large quantity of dark, half-clotted blood to assure me of the serious nature of his complaint.
A charming introduction.
His history – mostly made out with the aid of interpreters – was that eleven days ago he was drinking from a rain-water tank and felt something stick in his throat, which he could not reject. He felt this thing moving, and it caused difficulty in swallowing and occasionally vomiting. On the following day he began to spit up blood, and this continued until he saw me. He stated that he once vomited blood, and that he frequently felt that he was going to choke.
The doctor was dubious, but having already made the effort to visit the patient thought he might as well humour him. He was in for a surprise.
On examining his throat, a large clot of blood was found to be adherent to the posterior wall of the pharynx. On removing this clot of blood, no signs of the presence of a leech could be detected. However, on account of the symptoms complained of by the patient I introduced a polypus forceps into the lower part of the pharynx and towards the oesophagus, where a body, distinctly moving, was felt. This body I seized with the forceps, and with considerable force managed to remove. It was a leech between 2½ and 3 inches in length, and with a body of the size of a Lee-Metford bullet.
The Lee-Metford rifle was standard issue for British soldiers at this date – the short-lived predecessor to the better known Lee-Enfield.
No doubt during the eleven days it had remained in the man’s throat the leech had increased in size. Nevertheless, it must have been an animal of considerable size when the man attempted to swallow it. I send this case as a typical example of the carelessness of natives of the class from which we enlist our Sepoys, as to the nature of the water they drink.
Sepoy was the name used by British colonials for native Indians serving in the British army. Surgeon-Lieutenant Granger concludes his letter by taking a rather gratuitous swipe at the stupidity of the natives:
This man had drunk the pea-soup-like water of a tank dug in the side of the hill, rather than go a few hundred yards to a spring where the water is perfectly clear and pure. Though I have not met with another case of leeches being taken with drinking water, I am assured that such cases are occasionally met with about Agra and other towns in the North-West Provinces. This great carelessness as to the purity or impurity of their drinking water shows the difficulty medical officers must experience in their endeavours to prevent the Sepoys of a regiment from drinking water from condemned or doubtful sources during a cholera or typhoid epidemic.