THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: SEPTEMBER 25, 1818

First Human to Human Blood Transfusion

first-blood-transfusionIn 1628, English physician William Harvey described the circulation of blood in the body. This sparked interest in understanding the functions of the blood and physicians became interested in replacing lost blood through transfusions. Soon after Harvey published his work, transfusions with animals were attempted. In 1665, another English physician, Richard Lower successfully transfused blood between dogs.

Since animals could be induced to “donate” blood more readily than seventeenth-century humans, they were eyed as possible sources of blood for human patients as well. In 1667, Lower and Jean-Baptiste Denis independently reported transfusions of lamb blood into humans. However, such experiments often resulted in deadly reactions — one of which led to Denis’s arrest. Animal-human transfusions were soon prohibited by law.

In 1818, an Englishwoman who was hemorrhaging after childbirth was successfully treated with a blood transfusion. Using a hypodermic syringe, physician James Blundell administered approximately four ounces of blood that had been extracted from her husband’s arm. Blundell performed ten additional transfusions between 1825 and 1830, of which half were successful. This was the pattern for early transfusions — sometimes they helped and sometimes the patient had a severe, often fatal reaction. In 1875, German physiologist Leonard Landois first described how incompatible transfusions resulted in the clumping and bursting of red blood cells, a process called hemolysis. It was not until the dawn of the twentieth century that Landsteiner, an Austrian-born American immunologist, discovered why this occurred.

In 1901, Landsteiner discovered three different blood groups — A, B and O. The next year, another research team added the AB group. Red blood cells of groups A and B have A or B antigens, specific sugar-containing substances, on their surfaces. AB group blood cells carry both antigens and O blood cells have neither. Antibodies in the blood serum react to antigens of a different group and destroy the red blood cells. Landsteiner was awarded the 1930 Nobel Prize for his work.

“The Development of Modern Blood Transfusions.” Science and Its Times. Ed. Neil Schlager and Josh Lauer. Vol. 6. Detroit: Gale, 2001. Science in Context. Web.


Learn more about how blood transfusions developed »

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