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HUNTERIAN MUSEUM
London, England
Lat: 51°30'55.58"N Lon: 0°6'58.4"W

"So, what will it feel like when it bites?" I asked, staring with dread at the creature floating in the glass jar. "Oh, it's absolutely painless," replied the jovial man crouched beside me. He was a kindly character if more than a bit eccentric. To our director Jeremy's profound dismay, the gentleman — our "leeching expert" — had arrived at the shooting location that morning dressed in the elaborately detailed garb of a medieval barber. Apparently, it had not been communicated to him by production that he was to resemble a regular, ordinary Joe from this time period; or at least not one in costume from the 14th-century, complete with tattered coif and stained apron. "You just have to let him find his spot," he muttered, rolling back my shirtsleeve, then carefully removing the animal from the jar and placing it gingerly onto my right forearm. "There we are," he said, gratified. "Now he'll just make himself right at home."

It's Day #16 of Filthy Cities, a three-part BBC program on the history of urban sanitation. Today, I'm shooting a segment in the main gallery of London's Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, an institution crammed with an eclectic collection of medical, biological, and anatomical samples, all of them artfully arranged on dramatically lit shelving units. The place is, to say the least, a bit macabre while at the same time completely hip. Indeed, there are a few actual hip-bones present in the gallery along with about a thousand glass vials, tubes, cylinders, and plastic blocks preserving bestial and human organs, insect specimens, scorpions, spiders, and the like. In one display case, there's a colorful mannequin of a flayed corpse indicating his own muscle groups. All in all, a smashing spot if you're in the mood to let some blood the old-fashioned way.

"Action, Don!" Jeremy rolled camera, recording my leechy experience. I'm interviewing the leeching expert/barber about the general theory of medieval medicine, how it was all about analyzing the body's four humors — bile, phlegm, serum, and blood—in order to treat illness. In those decrepit, pre-scientific days, disease was usually attributed to an imbalance of the humors — too much blood, for example — which was, then treated by removing a certain amount of it by applying live leeches to the patient. And who performed this vile task? All too often, the village barbers — hence, suddenly my man's wacky garments made complete sense.

The leech wiggled around on my arm aimlessly for a bit while we talked and then, apparently, took hold—or, I should say, bit down. And guess what, it hurts plenty. "Ouch!" I grimaced. The barber studied the creature's miniscule movements. "He's searching for another area," he said. "Wasn't happy with the first spot now he's poking around for something better."

"Well, he's discriminating, anyway," I said, sarcastically. "That's a comfort."

In reality, a leech is an extremely simple creature. It lives for blood. That's the entire focus of its existence. It doesn't even feed and then go looking for a mate because the fact is every leech is a hermaphrodite, both male and female in one body. Thus, a leech lives a solitary existence latching onto any living host who wanders by and siphoning off it's greedy share of the red stuff, only stopping when it's so full up it can swallow no more. Then it simply releases, dropping off to begin its digestion, a process that can take months, even a year. This was the faceless invertebrate now attached to my body. Wonderful.

It would take less than a half-hour to interview the leeching expert/barber about medieval medicine before Jeremy began setting up for his next shot. The leech, on the other hand, would take it's own sweet time.

"How long will he feed?" I asked, incredulously, alarmed at my leech's ever-growing girth. It had become easily five times larger than its original size. He was now essentially a flesh-balloon filled with my blood.

"There's really no way to tell," came the whimsical reply. "We're on his schedule now. You can't pull a leech off or he'll leave his teeth behind. That's the only real danger of infection, you see. No, it's advisable to just wait for him to make his move."

"We could burn him off with a cigarette, right?

"That's just in movies. No, the only thing to do is… to wait."

Great. I couldn't leave. I couldn't exactly climb on the Tube and head to my hotel with a live leech burrowed in my arm. So, instead, I retired to the museum library to commune with my newfound friend, electing to make the best of a bad situation, to really absorb the experience of an animal absorbing me. And, in the end, I would have plenty of time to do so. It was just, me, myself and my leech for another forty-five minutes before he/she suddenly and quite unceremoniously terminated operations, releasing its teeth, rolling out onto the tabletop, and swooning in satisfied bloodlust.

Lesson learned. Leeches suck.

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