“We be of one blood, thou and I”

These are the words of Mowgli, in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894). Different blood types apart, they are universally true of human beings, something it is easy to overlook.

In 1818, Dr James Blundell, a British obstetrician, performed the first successful transfusion of human blood, for the treatment of postpartum haemorrhage. He used the patient’s husband as a donor, and extracted four ounces of blood from his arm to transfuse into his wife. From 1825 to 1830, Blundell performed 10 transfusions, five of which were beneficial, and published his results. He also invented many instruments for the transfusion of blood.

Early transfusions were risky and many resulted in the death of the patient. It was not until 1901, when the Austrian biologist and physician Karl Landsteiner (right) discovered human blood groups, that blood transfusions became safer. Mixing blood from two incompatible individuals has potentially fatal consequences. Landsteiner found that when incompatible types are mixed, the red blood cells clump, and that this immunological reaction occurs when the receiver of a blood transfusion has antibodies against the donor blood cells. In 1930 Landsteiner was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine.

In 1941, the British Red Cross set up the world’s first blood transfusion unit to help keep pace with medical advances which required blood, but had no facilities to store it. Five years later it became the Blood Transfusion Service (later renamed the National Blood Service). I discovered this information when I learnt that my great-aunt, Louisa Georgina Slinn (1896-1989) – known to us as Auntie Louie (left) – was an early blood donor. This is entirely in character with a woman who was fascinated by things scientific (she would have been delighted to know she was appearing in a blog). On 6 July 1959 she read a story in The Daily Mail about a boy called Albert Shepherd, who was suffering from lymphadenoma (an abnormally enlarged lymph node). The doctors treating him decided that he needed an urgent blood transfusion, but his mother was too unwell to be the donor.

My Auntie Louie volunteered and the following week gave a considerable amount of blood (“A pint – That’s very nearly an armful!”, as Tony Hancock was later to cry in “The Blood Donor”). On 15 July 1959 The Daily Mail carried a follow-up story announcing the success of the treatment. Albert’s mother never knew who the anonymous donor was, but the British Red Cross Society sent my great-aunt an official receipt noting the outcome.

Blood transfusion saves lives and improves health, but today millions of patients needing a transfusion still do not have timely access to safe blood. Many people die because blood is not available – even in some urban health-care facilities. More than 93 million units of blood are collected globally every year, about 50% of which are donated in low- and middle-income countries where nearly 85% of the world’s population now lives.

On 14 June 2011, countries worldwide will celebrate World Blood Donor Day with events to raise awareness of the need for safe blood and blood products and to thank voluntary donors for their life-saving gifts of blood. The theme for World Blood Donor Day 2011 is “More blood. More life.” I can proudly say that my great-aunt was one of the first to respond to the call.

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