A History of Blood Transfusions

By Danielle Aloia, Special Projects Librarian

World Blood Donor Day 2014June 14 is World Blood Donor Day, a date selected to coincide with the birthday of Karl Landsteiner (1868–1943), the father of blood transfusions. Landsteiner discovered the A, B, AB, and O blood types in 1901, making blood transfusions safer. His work earned him the the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1930.1 The Word Health Organization (WHO) created this event to honor Dr. Landsteiner and to bring attention to the need for timely access to safe blood and blood products through voluntary donations.2

Recorded evidence of blood transfusions date back to the 16th century; there has been much speculation as to who first tried it and who first succeeded. Some tales are based on evidence and some seem to have been fabricated. Dr. Richard Lower is credited with performing the first successful blood transfusion from one animal to another in the 17th century. But it wasn’t until 1818 that Dr. James Blundell, a gynecologist, made a fairly successful attempt; after the procedure, patients who had been near death showed temporary improvement. Blundell continued to improve on the process and in 1829, he published the first report on a “human life being saved by transfusion” in the Lancet.3

Figure from Dr. Blundell's article in the June 13 ,1829 issue of The Lancet, "Observations on Transfusion of Blood."

Figure from Dr. Blundell’s article in the June 13, 1829 issue of The Lancet, “Observations on Transfusion of Blood.”

From the RAMC Muniment Collection in the care of the Wellcome Library. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

From the RAMC Muniment Collection in the care of the Wellcome Library. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Even after Landsteiner’s 1901 discovery, the ability to safely store and preserve blood donations took several more decades of study. During the First World War, O. H. Robinson, an army doctor,  introduced an effective anti-coagulant for long-term human blood storage.4 Percy Oliver began the first blood donor service with the British Red Cross. In the 1920s, he was asked to help with the growing need for blood and developed the first system of a volunteer donation and screening process. It wasn’t until 1941 that the Red Cross in the US started actively collecting blood from donors on request of the US government.4

This year’s World Blood Donor Day campaign highlights the importance of safe blood and the prevention of unnecessary deaths during pregnancy. The loss of blood during childbirth has been studied throughout history5 and continues to be a medical concern. About 800 women, nearly all in developing countries, die of pregnancy- and childbirth-related causes every day.2 A 2006 WHO analysis identified hemorrhaging as the leading cause of maternal deaths in Africa and in Asia.6 In developing countries donated blood is most often used for pregnancy complications7 whereas only 2.2% of donated blood in the US is used for obstetrics.8

Blood donation is one of the single most important contributions a person can make in saving the lives of others. Every two seconds someone needs blood and every pint of blood can save several lives.9 The more donated blood, the more lives saved.


1. NobelPrize.org. Karl Landsteiner – Biographical. Available at: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1930/landsteiner-bio.html. Accessed June 11, 2014.

2. World Health Organization. Campaign essentials: World blood donor day 2014.; 2014. Available at: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/112768/1/WHO_World-Blood-Donor-Day_2014.1_eng.pdf?ua=1&ua=1. Accessed June 11, 2014.

3. Walker K. The Story of Blood. London: H. Jenkins; 1958.

4. Duffin J. History of Medicine: A Scandalously Short Introduction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; 2010.

5. Schorn MN. Measurement of blood loss: review of the literature. J Midwifery Womens Health. 55(1):20–7. doi:10.1016/j.jmwh.2009.02.014.

6. Khan KS, Wojdyla D, Say L, Gülmezoglu AM, Van Look PFA. WHO analysis of causes of maternal death: a systematic review. Lancet. 2006;367(9516):1066–74. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(06)68397-9.

7. World Health Organization. WHO | 10 facts on blood transfusion. Available at: http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/blood_transfusion/blood_transfusion/en/index1.html. Accessed June 12, 2014.

8. Whitaker B, Hinkins S. The 2011 national blood collection and utilization survey report. Washington, D.C.; 2013. Available at: http://www.aabb.org/research/hemovigilance/nbcus/Documents/11-nbcus-report.pdf. Accessed June 12, 2014.

9. Blood Centers of the Pacific. 56 Facts About Blood and Blood Donation. 2005. Available at: http://www.bloodcenters.org/blood-donation/facts-about-blood-donation/. Accessed June 11, 2014.

9 thoughts on “A History of Blood Transfusions

  1. The mention above of O.H. Robinson’s contribution is a bit of a misstatement. Research on how best to add an anti-coagulant to blood was rampant before this and bore fruit starting in 1914. During 1914/15, work was published by Hustin (Belgium), Agote (Argentina) and Weil (New York) describing the use of citrate and then sodium citrate to stop clotting. Richard Lewisohn then published his research that outlined the specific measurement of citrate that was required and safe to use. It is a fascinating international story about a major advance in medicine. (See Maxwell Wintrobe, Blood, Pure and Eloquent, McGraw-Hill, 1980, pp.677-678.)

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