This Month in History

James Blundell

James Blundell

25th September 1818 

First Transfusion of Human Blood is performed at Guy’s Hospital, London

On 25th September 1818, a lady lay in Guy’s Hospital in London haemorrhaging badly after giving birth. Her doctor, James Blundell, took a chance on a dangerous and untried theory, and administered the world’s first human-to-human blood transfusion of approximately four ounces of blood extracted from the lady’s husband’s arm. The procedure was a success, not to mention the culmination of 190 years of medical developments.

In 1628, English physician William Harvey discovered that blood circulated around the human body, rather than being constantly produced and burned up like fuel as had previously been thought. This sparked slow but noticeable change in medical practice as the practice of blood-letting fell out of favour and doctors tried to find ways to replace lost blood in a patient. Animals had been an obvious first choice of donor, being far more readily available and easier to coerce than human donors. In 1665, another English doctor, Richard Lower successfully transfused blood between dogs, and in 1667 he, and quite independently also Jean-Baptiste Denis, reported successful transfusions of lambs blood into humans. However most experiments of animal-human transfusion proved deadly, eventually leading to Denis’s arrest for murder, and animal-human transfusions were quickly prohibited by law.

Even with the breakthrough of a successful human-human transfusion, such results were not guaranteed. Of the ten further transfusions Blundell performed between 1825 and 1830, only half were successful, a pattern which consistent throughout the medical profession. There was no discernible pattern for success, and so uncertain was the science and so ghoulish were the public’s imaginings of the procedure, it was small wonder that in 1897 novelist and stage-manager Bram Stoker’s character of Doctor Van Helsing is shown using the procedure as a method of combatting vampirism in Lucy (without success). Finally answers to the conundrum came in 1901 when an Austrian-born American immunologist Landsteiner discovered three different blood groups, A, B, and O, with a fourth group, AB being discovered by a different research team a year later. Landsteiner was awarded the 1930 Nobel Prize for his work, and blood transfusions are no longer a gamble with death.

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