Disease viewed as a loss of balance

The "humoral theory" of disease, which originated with Hippocrates (who lived from about 460 to about 370 B.C.) and lasted until the early 20th century, held that a balance had to be maintained among four humors or liquid substances in the human body. If that balance got out of whack, the thinking was, people got sick.

The four humors were black bile, red or yellow bile, blood and phlegm. The ancients believed that these substances ruled our personalities as well as our bodies. They divided all the possible character types into these four — melancholic, choleric, sanguine and phlegmatic — depending on which substance dominated that particular person.

Treatments for disease were designed to restore the balance among the humors, but what worked for one person might not work for another, which helped let practitioners off the hook if a "cure" didn't work. Purges like enemas and emetics were popular, and physicians often advised changes to a patient's diet or routine. Blood-letting was an especially durable cure for just about anything.

During labor, for example, "some women were bled to unconsciousness to counter delivery pains" or any other complications large or small, according to Peter Conrad's The Sociology of Health and Illness.

The acceptance of the germ theory finally put an end to humoral theory in mainstream medical thought.

Bank on it

Bernard Fantus, the Hungarian-born physician who was the director of "therapeutics" at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, Ill., established the first "blood bank" in 1937.

Until then, a donor had to be on-site at the time of a blood transfusion.

Bernard Fantus

Bernard Fantus

Dr. Fantus also coined the term "blood bank," in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that year that set out the hospital's methodology in clear, understandable terms.

Other institutions swiftly developed their own blood-storage facilities, and helped themselves to Fantus's catchy term as well.

Cook County's blood-storage innovation came at a critical time, just a few years before the start of World War II, when blood donated by people thousands of miles from the battlefronts would make the difference between life and death for a great many injured Allied soldiers.

Going with the flow

Blood's ability to stop flowing — to clot — is a wondrous property that keeps us from bleeding to death after minor injuries. However, that trait was a major stumbling block to perfecting blood transfusions.

Even early in the 20th century, a few minutes into any transfusion, blood would begin to clump together in the tube that was carrying it from donor to recipient, and the technician would have to start over. Letting blood sit in a container for any length of time was out of the question.

Richard Lewisohn MD

Richard Lewisohn

A number of researchers were working on the problem. The Belgian physician Albert Hustin, and the Argentinian doctor Luis Agote, both hit on the anticoagulant properties of sodium citrate in 1914, but the bad news was that the common compound was toxic in blood.

Dr. Richard Lewisohn of New York's Mount Sinai Hospital solved that problem with exhaustive experiments.  The German-born Lewisohn, who had trained at the excellent University of Freiburg, discovered the concentration at which sodium citrate could keep blood liquid without poisoning the transfusion recipient.

At first, it looked as if sodium citrate had a worrisome set of side effects, but Lewisohn proved that those were caused by infectious agents in poorly cleaned equipment. In the end, he showed that a diluted sodium citrate concentrate in blood, deployed with meticuously maintained needles and tubes, worked just about perfectly. In fact, it is still used.

Once the medical profession accepted Lewisohn's elegant solution to the clotting conundrum — and that took years — blood transfusions were transformed from a traumatic undertaking to the routine procedure they are today.

In 1916, just in time for World War I, researchers determined that sodium citrate allowed blood to be stored outside the body for up to two weeks.

Not all blood is the same

In 1900, the Austrian chemist, botanist and medical researcher Karl Landsteiner realized that not all human blood is alike, that some people's blood contains substances that are toxic to other people's blood.

That began to solve the mystery of why some people who received blood transfusions were fine, while others became ill and often died.

Karl Landsteiner
Karl Landsteiner

Landsteiner subsequently discovered three of the four genetically determined blood groups or types, O, A and B. A couple of years later, Alfred von Decastello and Adriano Sturli, Landsteiner's colleagues in Vienna, identified a fourth blood group, AB. While about 30 blood types have been discovered, the original four essentially cover everyone.

In 1910, at the Heidelberg Institute for Experimental Cancer Research in Germany, Ludwig Hirszfeld and Emil von Dungern demonstrated that blood type is an inherited trait.

In the speech he made when he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1930 for his work, Landsteiner described the mystery blood presented, and how he and his fellow researchers unraveled its secrets.

In 1922, Landsteiner moved to the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research in New York, where he discovered an extremely powerful blood antigen he called "the Rh factor."

Today, hospital personnel make sure they know a mother's blood type in case she needs a transfusion. She will also be tested for her Rh factor because it can pose a danger to her baby's well being.

Blood draw

The science writer Douglas Starr has made something of a specialty of blood.

His book, Blood: The Epic History of Medicine and Commerce, and the PBS documentary series it inspired, Red Gold, cover the waterfront on this vital component of life, and our relationship to it.

The PBS website has a great discussion guide that sums up the topic impressively, and includes a timeline of important developments in our evolving relationship with blood.

Red Gold

Even before we understood its function, humans invested blood with value and meaning. As Starr writes in an essay in the guide:

Blood: It’s strange that this most familiar of substances has always been so laden with feeling, so heavily freighted with mystery and symbolism. Consider the vocabulary: blood of our fathers; blood of Christ; the nation’s blood; lifeblood; blood brothers, blood sacrament, blood libel.…The history of blood involves not only medicine, but also culture and religion. It is a story of change — how a mysterious liquid became a global commodity and reflected the soul of each society that used it.