September 19, 2011



  During the 1600s in Europe the first blood transfusions were done and involved inserting the blood of animals such as lambs and goats into the veins of humans. Lambs were the preferred animal for this procedure because it was thought that the traits of the animal were passed on to the person through the blood.

Sheep and Goats were the preferred
animals for use in performing early
blood transfusions.

Needless to say, the results were mixed, and often fatal. During the 1920-30s in the Soviet Union doctors used the blood of cadavers for transfusions. Immediately after a person was pronounced dead they would drain the blood from the just deceased person and save it for when it was needed by others.

Stored blood in a blood bank.

This blood was perfectly good for use in transfusions unless the person had suffered from or died of a disease that could be transmitted through the blood. But the blood of an accident victim, for example, was looked upon as a valuable commodity to be recycled and reused. However, the outcry from the medical establishments around the world protesting what they considered to be a grisly and immoral practice brought this practice to an end. 

Also, in WW II the blood of white and African-American soldiers was segregated by the Red Cross and the military services of the U.S. White soldiers received only the blood of white donors when in need of a transfusion. African-American soldiers received only the blood of other African Americans.

Dr.Charles Drew, an African-American
physician, whose pioneering work in the
fields of blood transfusions and blood
banks saved countless American lives
both black and white. His vocal agitation
about the segregation of blood by race
cost him his job.  

There was no scientific evidence that there was any difference whatsoever between the blood of the two races, but the social custom of segregation ("Jim Crow" laws) in the U.S. made this practice widespread and accepted.

This picture is an indication of the
extent segregation was practiced in the U.S.

But to return to my main idea about the odd and unusual ideas surrounding the history and practice of blood transfusions, this is only the beginning of the story. To look back at this scientific tale brings us face to face with the early scientific misconceptions of doctors and scientists, ...and also with the  racial prejudices our country harbored while fighting a war to set people free. A contradiction? Surely. 

To finish up, here are two videos having to do with the odd and unusual history of blood transfusions. As in many human endeavors, the story is full of superstitions, misconceptions and scientific guesswork. Happily, trial and error over the centuries led to the saving of countless lives.