Gross, sure -- but maggots have medical benefits

Maggot therapy can be useful in cleaning wounds, but patients shouldn't try it at home, says Dr. Anthony Youn.

Story highlights

  • Maggots have been used in medicine throughout history
  • Their use declined with the invention of penicillin
  • Some doctors are returning to them as antibiotic resistance increases
As a surgical resident, I spent several months working in the local wound clinic. One day, a 60-year-old old man named John arrived, several weeks after undergoing a cardiac bypass. The surgeon had harvested a large vein from his leg for the operation.
I entered the exam room. John's left leg was elevated on the exam table, exposing an open wound.
"Something's wrong with my leg, doc."
I stepped closer. Dozens of small white larvae wiggled and squirmed in his open flesh.
Maggots! Not good.
Or are they?
The use of medicinal maggots, sometimes called maggot debridement therapy, was first widely reported during the time of Napoleon. His general surgeon reportedly used maggots as a technique of cleaning soldiers' battlefield wounds. Maggot therapy was also a common practice during the Civil War and World War I.
Scientific studies on medicinal maggot use began in the 1920s. These studies revealed that maggots helped clean dirty and necrotic wounds by feeding on the dead tissue while leaving the healthy tissue unaffected.
During the 1930s, thousands of surgeons used maggots to effectively