War brings with it hundreds of thousands of mangled bodies, clinging deperately to life. Men laid damaged while their precious blood flowed out of open wounds and mixed with the muck. Although the idea of blood transfusions was trialed in the past, it wasn’t until World War I that huge strides were made towards making blood transfusions safe and commonplace.

“For the concept of a circuit of blood does not destroy, but rather advances traditional mediciine…”-William Harvey

The history of blood transfusion begins with William Harvey’s dicovery of blood circulation. You can read one of my earliest posts about him HERE. Richard Lower of England attempted the earliest recorded blood transfusion in 1666 when he transferred blood from one dog to another (Fitzharris 209). Throughout history blood was discribed as the powerhouse of the body, the container of one’s lifeforce. The concept of tranfusing blood was rejected by most because they feared the side-effects and viewed it as an unnatural act. This resulted in any real developments being halted until the 19th century when the cusp of war created an agonizingly thirsty desire to save human life in the midst of technilogically advanced warfare.

Between the years of 1818 and 1829, James Blundell performed some of the first human to human blood transfusions (Fitzharris 209). Many of his patients died as a result of the procedure. For years the invisible killer of the transfusions baffled the medical field. Some patients would recieve blood and seemingly improve just to expire a few hours later. The mystery would go unsolved until Karl Landsteiner, and Austian-American biologist began studying the properties of blood. He noticed that blood from some donors, when mixed with blood from other donors, would clump together. Wanting to be sure it did not have to do with the illnesses the patients may have had at the time, he took more samples from himself and collegues. Landsteiner was able to observe that blood only clumped when certain bloods were mixed. Throughout his observations he classified blood into three original categories, A, B, and C (Fitzharris 209). The Last type, C, was later renamed O, and then a fourth group was coined AB. The reason that mismatched transfusions is so deadly is because blood types contain different antigens. When the wrong blood is infused into a person, their immune system responds to the foreign antigens (Fitzharris 210). Type O has no antigens which is why it is universally compatable.

Some of the first transfusions involved the use of a tube being connected to the patient and donor. This method brought about a few issues, some of which involved the need to have donors ready at the bedside as well as the fact that it was impossible to measure the amount of blood taken or given. In 1913, Edward Lindeman got the idea to collect blood in a syringe. This allowed the doctors to measure the amount of blood given, and allowed the blood to be transportable. The blood would have had to be administered rather quickly though or else it would clot in the tube and be useless (Fitzharris 210). During World War I, Adolf Hustin discoverd that sodium citrate acted as an anticoagulant when mixed with blood. Mixing it with batches of blood made it easier to store and transport to patients in field hospitals. Blood transfusions as a whole were still very dangerous and not used as widely by the end of the first World War. Oswald Hope Roberston, an American hemotologist used blood prepared with sodium citrate at the western front. It made administering emergency medicine easier and he pushed forward the idea of blood banking for future use (Fitzharris 213). In 1932 the first official blood bank was established and by 1940, the United States established a nationwide blood collection program. World War II brought with it a transition from glass containers to plastic bags which enabled safer collection and transport. According to the Americal Red Cross, 16 millon blood components are transfused in the united States each year. After the guns ceased and the dust settled, one of the only triumphs that remained was the expansion of the medical field’s ability to treat the sick and wounded. The knowledge that was gained in those years of hardship would continue to influence how people are treated today.

Until Next Time:

N.F.

Sources:

-Fitzharris, Lindsey. The Facemaker: A Visionary Surgeon’s Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I. farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York, 2022. Print.

-“A Brief History of Blood Transfusions Throughout the Years.” Standford Blood Center. March 10, 2016. Accessed 19 August, 2022. https://stanfordbloodcenter.org/a-brief-history-of-blood-transfusion-through-the-years/.

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