A dangerous remedy

One physician's exploration of possible remedies for deadly hemorrhages that occurred during and after birth led to a renewed interest in blood transfusion in the 19th century, and to the first human-to-human transfusion.

James Blundell, who like many physicians and researchers of the time also delivered babies, studied the short, disastrous history of transfusions and came to two far-reaching decisions — that only human blood should be used, and that it should be used for one purpose only, to replace blood. No curing mental illness, no altering personalities.

Blundell performed the first human-to-human transfusion in 1818, and went on to transfuse 10 patients over the next several years, half of whom died. Even with that dubious track record, transfusion took on new life, because Blundell's results weren't that bad, given the mortality picture of the time, according to Douglas Starr, author of Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce.

In 1873, Franz Gesellius, a Polish doctor, studied the records of all the transfusions he could find and determined that 56 percent  of the subjects had died. Critics began to attack transfusion as an attention-grabbing gimmick, and an dangerous one at that.

At the end of the 19th century, transfusion appeared to be headed the way of bloodletting and other quackery.