Did you know? 10 Historical Facts about Blood Transfusion

Since the beginning of the human race, we have had a profound fascination with blood, from the mythological vampires found in many cultures throughout the world, to the Ancient Egyptians’ belief that drinking human blood would increase their existence in the afterlife. Even the blood of Ancient Roman gladiators was said to cure epilepsy.

However, our knowledge and understanding about human blood, its various components and the transfusion process, has improved dramatically in the last century, largely due to the carnage of WWI & WWII. Here are some weird and wonderful facts you might not know about the history of blood and blood transfusions:

  1. 1628 - British physician William Harvey was the first man to correctly understand the process of blood circulating around the human body.
  2. 1658 - At the tender young age of 21, Dutch biologist and microscopist, Jan Swammerdan was the first recorded person in the world to observe and describe red blood cells through a microscope.
  3. 1665 - Humans have a lot to thank dogs for, because we learnt a lot about blood transfusions from them.  The first recorded successful blood transfusion occurred in England between dogs.
  4. 1818 - The first recorded successful human blood transfusion was carried out by British obstetrician James Blundell to a mother who had haemorrhaged severely during childbirth.
  5. 1901 - Marked a significant advancement in our understanding of blood and commenced the dawn of modern transfusion medicine. Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner made the break-through discovery that blood comes in three main groups – A, B, and O, (AB was added later) establishing the basic principles of ABO compatibility between blood donations and recipients of transfusion.  ABO blood grouping is still one of the most important tests done by Blood Services around the world to this day. Landsteiner was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work, and we continue to mark his efforts by celebrating World Blood Donor Day (June 14) on his birthday.
  6. 1907 - The safety of blood transfusions were vastly improved when American pathologist Ludvig Hektoen used Landsteiner’s ABO groups to suggest that blood transfusions might be improved by cross-matching blood between donors and patients to exclude incompatible blood types. Later that year, American physician and haematologist Reuben Ottenberg went on to perform the first blood transfusion using blood typing and cross-matching.
  7. 1914-1918 - During WWI, scientists discovered that blood (like many things) will last longer if it’s stored in a fridge.
  8. 1939-1940 - the Rh blood group system was discovered. The most important blood group factor in this system is the D antigen. This is particularly important during childbirth, as problems may arise if the foetus’s blood has the Rh D factor and the mother’s blood does not (it is D negative).
  9. 1925 – the first voluntary blood donations recorded in New Zealand were collected in Auckland after an advertisement was placed in the local press by the Medical Superintendent of Auckland Hospital.  Those who responded were tested for blood type and a panel of about 14 donors was established.
  10. 1939-1945 - During WWII, voluntary blood donors stepped forward when emergency medical services set up transfusion centres across Britain and America, and these generous donors saved the lives of many soldiers and civilians. Voluntary donations also increased rapidly in NZ at that time.  After further research into the benefits of plasma, plasma products were developed.  They were used to treat shock in seamen and soldiers injured during the Pearl Harbour attack in 1941. Dried plasma becomes a vital element in the treatment of wounded soldiers a few years later.
  11. 1972 – American medical technologist Herb Cullis invented the Apheresis machine and further changed the world of blood donation.  Prior to his invention blood was collected and then mechanically separated into its different components. His invention enables platelets or plasma to be separated directly from the blood drawn from donors and then return the red cells and remaining blood components to the donor. This process enables donors to come back and donate platelets or plasma every two - six weeks instead of every 84 days after a whole blood.

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