Phlebotomist—in a humorous vein

I went out with an old university mate of mine this week. Margot works in the health industry and, as I have spent a fair bit of time in a hospital this week as my elderly mother has injured herself in a fall, the conversation inevitably went to our health.

I complained that I have developed a real phobia to my blood being taken, because, so often, the nurses have been missing my veins and hitting nerves, sending me towards the ceiling with tears in my eyes.

“Phlebotomists!”, explains Margot. I smiled feigning understanding. Margot is not one to swear and I had no idea what she was talking about, “They are called phlebotomists,” she told me (“That’s not the word I used,” said I).

Pathology collectors

Margot explained that the people who take your blood and urine samples in pathology labs are phlebotomists. I was sceptical. I thought it was just a bit of too-clever medical jargon (although Margot is not that sort).

So I took her at her word and sure enough it is a real-world word. If you throw “phlebotomist” into Google you get Seek ads—“Casual role available in our Bondi Junction clinic. Join a positive team culture who are passionate about patient care and services.”

Meaning of phlebotomist

A phlebotomist is someone who practices phlebotomy. The word history of “phlebotomy” turns out to be quite a worthy tale.

Now, as you can imagine, of an old word like this, it certainly didn’t refer to the taking of pathology samples in medieval France. The original meaning of phlebotomy is “blood-letting”. It comes from Old French “flebotomie” and directly from Medieval Latin phlebotomia. In the original Greek phleps means “a vein” and tomē “a cutting”, so literally the cutting of veins.

Blood letting

Bloodletting has a history going back 3000 years. In ancient medical practices, bloodletting was believed to balance the body’s humours and restore health. The four basic elements—earth, air, fire, and water—related to the four basic humours: blood, phlegm, black bile, yellow bile.

Only recently has it been discredited (for most ailments). My father was a vet and I remember him talking about blood letting as a treatment he used in his early career (in the 1950s).

Bloodletting is either general or local. The general method is by venesection and arteriotomy with cutting into veins and arteries). The local method is done by scarification with cupping and leeches.

Venesection was the most common and usually involved puncturing a vein at the elbow. The main instrument was not a needle but a fleam (“fleam” is a medieval shortening of the Greek “phlebotomos” for a lancet).

In modern healthcare, bloodletting has largely been abandoned. However, phlebotomy has ostensibly evolved into a refined and precise procedure, with needles and vacuum tubes used to  collect blood for diagnostic purposes or blood donations. But, tell my poor bruised veins that!

P.s. lobotomist vs. phlebotomist

Now, you might be thinking, as I did, that phlebotomy must be similar to lobotomy, a more familiar word. But no, lobotomy is a modern word coined in 1936 from lobe (referring to the frontal lobe of the brain) with “tomy” meaning cutting.

Lobotomy was needed to be distinct from the existing word, “lobectomy”. Lobectomy (from 1911) was used in reference to removing the lobes of other organs (lungs, liver). Figurative use is attested from 1953 used to suggest someone has diminished intelligence.

“Teenage Lobotomy” is a song by the American punk rock band Ramones. It was released on their 1977 album Rocket to Russia, and became one of their most popular songs.

Now I guess I’ll have to tell ’em

That I got no cerebellum

You just have to love that rhyme.