The History of Blood Transfusions

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Every two seconds in the United States, someone is in need of a blood transfusion, according to the American Red Cross. Thanks to the efficiency of current practices, in most scenarios that blood is already on the shelf awaiting the need. The fact that most patients can be given a transfusion at a moment’s notice saves countless lives every year. Obviously that’s great news, but how did today’s blood transfusion process become so efficient?

The First Successful Blood Transfusions

The procedure of transfusing blood has come a long way since 1665 when English doctor, Richard Lower, performed the first successful blood transfusion. Though the procedure involved transfusing the blood of several dogs into a single dog, Dr. Lower was able to keep the subject dog alive. Two years later, in 1667, Dr. Lower and Edmond King, as well as France’s Jean-Baptiste Denis, each recorded separate successful transfusions of sheep blood into humans.

The Evolution of Blood Transfusions

By the 1900s, the blood transfusion process had become much safer, and substitutes including milk and saline solution had even been tried. Though it wasn’t initially considered a major breakthrough in the world of transfusions, in 1901, an Austrian doctor named Karl Landsteiner was the first to discover separate human blood groups. It wasn’t until six years later, in 1907, that Ludvig Hektoen made the suggestion that transfusions might be more successful if the recipient’s blood types were cross-matched against donors. In that same year, the first successful blood transfusion using cross-matching was performed by Reuben Ottenberg. Cross-matching has been a standard in blood transfusions ever since.

In 1914, long-term anticoagulants were first created that allowed hospitals and clinics to store blood longer. It virtually did away with the necessity for direct donor to patient transfusions. That major breakthrough paved the way for the creation of the first blood donor centers, and it was just in time for the start of World War I.

The War Connection

The need for blood is never more urgent than it is on the battlefield, but the nature of war makes direct transfusions impractical. So, the anti-coagulants created an opportunity to save more lives in war, because the blood was able to be kept on ice until needed.

During World War I, in anticipation of the Battle of Cambrai in 1917, Captain Oswald H. Robertson capitalized on the development of anti-coagulants, and set up a medical field station that housed preserved blood. It was the first known use of stored blood in a wartime scenario, and the success of Captain Robertson’s efforts led to widespread use across the armed forces.

Of course, improvements in blood collection, safety and storage didn’t stop with the end of World War I. But, war has been a driving force behind the evolution. In 1940, the United States created the first national blood collection program, and in 1941, the Red Cross started their National Blood Donor Service in an effort to collect blood for soldiers in World War II. After collecting over 13 million pints of blood, the program was ended in 1945, but in 1947, the Red Cross opened its first civilian-focused blood center.

Blood Donation Networks

Fast forward to today, and the American Red Cross provides about 40 percent of the blood supply in the United States, with 80 percent of that blood being collected through mobile blood drives, such as those held at churches and schools. However, even though they were the first to do it, the American Red Cross is not the United States’ largest blood donation network. The biggest non-profit network of blood centers in North America is called America’s Blood Centers (ABC). Established in 1962, ABC collects 19,000 pints of blood daily, and provides roughly half of the U.S. blood supply.

The American Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers are not affiliated with one another, but they share a mutual goal and history: saving lives. To find out how you can become a part of history and help save lives, contact ABC or the American Red Cross today.

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