Millions of blood transfusions are performed in hospitals across the world every year. However, the origins of this now familiar and vital life saving procedure were, as with other medical developments through history, controversial.
Experimentation in blood exchange began in both England and France 350 years ago, but such was the outcry at the ‘ungodly’ acts taking place that the French parliament banned the research, and all medical exploration in the subject ground to a halt. It wasn’t until 25th September 1818 that English surgeon and obstetrician James Blundell, after years of working on dogs, was finally able to conduct the first human to human blood transfusion, at St Guy’s Hospital in London. This was a radical procedure at a time when the majority of medical professionals still tried to cure most complaints by draining blood from a patient rather than replacing it. That same year, Blundell published Experiments on the Transfusion of Blood by the Syringe in the journal Medico-Chirurgical Transactions. This paper discussed his experiences conducting whole blood transfusions in dogs and humans using a syringe. It opened his work to scrutiny and further experimentation across the medical world.
Blundell’s choice of career was influenced by his uncle, John Haighton, a leading medic at Guy’s Hospital. Blundell studied with his uncle in the field of obstetrics. While they studied all aspects of childbirth, he and his uncle designed many of the instruments we associate with delivering babies today. As he was working with women in labour, he saw a large number of birth time related blood haemorrhages. It was so common in fact, that Blundell, desperate to save more women during the childbirth procedure, took to transfusing four ounces of blood extracted from the woman’s husband, and injecting it into her with a syringe in the hope it would cleanse her blood should she be losing the battle to live during labour. The Science Museum reports that Blundell “… performed a further ten transfusions between 1825 and 1830 and published details of them. Half were successful. Blundell limited the use of his transfusion apparatus to women on the verge of death due to uterine haemorrhage, the heavy bleeding that can result from a difficult labour. Blundell believed blood had a nutritive property and was infused with vitalism – a living force.”
Blundell’s work was a major breakthrough in medical science, but it still wasn’t until 1900, when Karl Landsteiner discovered blood groups, and worked out why certain bloods were incompatible with each other, that transfusions could start to become the successful cure they are today.
Blundell and the many scientists that followed in his wake continuing to develop transfusion techniques, are unlikely to have imagined what a massive impact their work has had on the modern world. Thanks to their dedication, by the twentieth century scientists in New York were developing the first blood banks. They were to become vital in keeping many injured soldiers alive during the two world wars, as well as other conflicts.
Even though it is two hundred years since James Blundell first ran blood from one human to another, the equipment he designed is still recognisable in operating theatres and transfusion kits used across the world today.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.