Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities

© 1999 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities, Landes Bioscience, Georgetown, TX, 1999 Blood Transfusions

Vague references to blood transfusion are found in medieval writings, though physicians historically were far more concerned with taking blood out of the body than with putting it back in. For example, one story tells of an attempt to prolong the life of Pope Innocent VIII (d. 1492) by means of a blood transfusion. By one account, a Jewish physician transfused the aged Pontiff with blood from three small boys, who each received one ducat as their reward; but another account says the blood was drunk, not infused. One of the earliest proposals to transfuse blood was by Andreas Libavius (1540-1616), a physician of Halle in Saxony, in 1615.

The first serious attempts at blood transfusion were made in England and France. In 1657 Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) carried out numerous experiments on the injection of liquids into the veins of animals. Richard Lower (1631-1691) of Oxford carried out the first successful transfusion from artery to vein between two dogs in 1665, a feat repeated by the French physician Jean-Baptiste Denys (1625-1704), who went on to attempt transfusion of blood from one kind of animal into another. Finally, before the Royal Society in 1667, Lower transfused a human youth, 15 years of age, from a sheep. The patient was greatly improved and the only ill effect was a feeling of great heat along his arm; subsequent patients were not so lucky. Blood transfusions from lambs and calves to humans continued to be tried in the mid 17th century, but were not very successful, and in 1670 were finally forbidden by law in England.

The first known transfusion of human blood into an already moribund person was attempted by James Blundell in 1818, and on several other occasions during the 1820s, with poor results. Transfusion was carried out on a small scale during the American Civil War, but technical difficulties connected with premature clotting and the occurrence of accidents arising from the use of incompatible blood prevented the rapid acceptance of the process. The cause of many of the untoward effects of blood transfusion was finally explained in 1901 when the presence of agglutinins and iso-agglutinins in the blood was demonstrated by Karl Landsteiner (1868-1943) in Vienna, winning him the Nobel Prize in 1930; in 1907, the four main blood groups were determined by Jan Jansky (1873-1921) of Prague. Rhesus factor was later identified by two American scientists, Philip Levine (1900-1987) and Rufus Stetson (1886-1967). These advances were of fundamental importance and it became possible in the 20th century to eliminate most of the fatalities due to incompatibility, allowing blood transfusions to be practiced reliably and with uniformly good results.


Last updated on 5 February 2003