In the Name of Science

From ancient times through the 19th century, physicians used bloodletting to treat acne, cancer, diabetes, jaundice, plague, and hundreds of other diseases and ailments (D. Wooton, Doctors Doing Harm since Hippocrates, Oxford Univ. Press, 2006). It was judged most effective to bleed patients while they were sitting upright or standing erect, and blood was often removed until the patient fainted. On 12 December 1799, 67-year-old President George Washington rode his horse in heavy snowfall to inspect his plantation at Mount Vernon. A day later, he was in respiratory distress and his doctors extracted nearly half of his blood over 10 hours, causing anemia and hypotension; he died that night.

Today, we know that bloodletting is unhelpful because in 1828 a Parisian doctor named Pierre Louis did a controlled experiment. He treated 78 people suffering from pneumonia with early and frequent bloodletting or less aggressive measures and found that bloodletting did not help survival rates or recovery times.

Ron Kohavi, Roger Longbotham, and Toby Walker (Online Experiments: Practical Lessons, IEEE Computer, September 2010)