26 min

① Bloody Beginnings▪On blood transfusion as medical cure-all A History of Science

    • History

Daring 17th century doctors try their hand at blood transfusion. With fatal consequences.

Blood.

The mere sight of it is enough to make many people faint. Blood has long been thought to be the magical ingredient to life. It has been used in rituals, cures, and potions. It has been believed to contain the essence of our being – our very soul, itself.

On average, five and a half liters of blood flow through our body. Lose two of them, and die.

Hello and welcome to A History of Science. Episode 1: Bloody Beginnings

Introduction

Blood transfusion has been a mainstay of medical practice over the course of the last century. Ever since the discovery of blood types in 1901, blood has been safely shared between people. The enormous need for blood donors that grew out of the industrialized warfare of the First World War led to the invention of blood banks. And now, a hundred years later, blood transfusion is amongst the most likely medical procedures that anyone will undergo at some point in their life: for anyone suffering major trauma, it is a life-saving procedure.

The transfusion of blood is an idea that long predates modern medical science. It was not thought of as a remedy for stabbed soldiers bleeding to death on the battlefield. It was practiced by doctors who could not fathom the existence of blood types, DNA, red or white blood cells. Indeed, it was pioneered just after the discovery of blood circulation.

In this episode we will explore these early pioneers of blood transfusion. Who were they? What drove them? And perhaps most importantly, what could they possibly hope to accomplish?

William Harvey and Blood Circulation

In 1628, British physician William Harvey wrote history. In April of that year, he published his masterpiece De Motu Cordis, or An Anatomical Exercise on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Living Beings. In it, he describes the results of years of painstaking experiments, measurements, and observations, and concludes that blood is pumped through the body by the heart.

As intuitive as his discovery may sound to us, it was indeed very far removed from accepted medical science at the time. Before Harvey, blood was believed to be generated in the stomach, as a byproduct of the digestion of food. It would make its way through the body, constantly being warmed up by the heart. After reaching its boiling point, it would then evaporate and leave the body through the lungs. Breathing was the exhaling of fumes of vaporized blood. The human body as a steam engine, with the heart being the furnace, and the mouth as a steam whistle.

Fortunately, William Harvey lived in an exciting time, one we now call the Scientific Revolution. Classic ideas about how the world worked were increasingly being turned on its head by experimental science. Ancient writers, such as the Greek philosopher Aristotle and the Roman physician Galen, had dominated medieval intellectual life for centuries. Their works were treated as gospel – literally. Just like the Bible contained all knowledge one could possibly need about morality, Galen was the only textbook one could ever need on medicine. And if the Reformation was an out-of-hand conflict about the Bible’s interpretation, medieval medical science was a continuing feud about interpreting Galen and Aristotle. If your patient died, you had simply misinterpreted Galen’s instructions. They could not possibly have been wrong.

Now that the ancients were slowly but surely falling out of favor as experimental science proved them wrong, William Harvey’s words did not fall on deaf ears. In the decades following the publication of his book, Harvey’s work became the accepted theory on blood circulation. And by some, his work was not just read, but positively internalized.

Richard Lower and the First Blood Transfusion

Richard Lower was a London-based physician who,

Daring 17th century doctors try their hand at blood transfusion. With fatal consequences.

Blood.

The mere sight of it is enough to make many people faint. Blood has long been thought to be the magical ingredient to life. It has been used in rituals, cures, and potions. It has been believed to contain the essence of our being – our very soul, itself.

On average, five and a half liters of blood flow through our body. Lose two of them, and die.

Hello and welcome to A History of Science. Episode 1: Bloody Beginnings

Introduction

Blood transfusion has been a mainstay of medical practice over the course of the last century. Ever since the discovery of blood types in 1901, blood has been safely shared between people. The enormous need for blood donors that grew out of the industrialized warfare of the First World War led to the invention of blood banks. And now, a hundred years later, blood transfusion is amongst the most likely medical procedures that anyone will undergo at some point in their life: for anyone suffering major trauma, it is a life-saving procedure.

The transfusion of blood is an idea that long predates modern medical science. It was not thought of as a remedy for stabbed soldiers bleeding to death on the battlefield. It was practiced by doctors who could not fathom the existence of blood types, DNA, red or white blood cells. Indeed, it was pioneered just after the discovery of blood circulation.

In this episode we will explore these early pioneers of blood transfusion. Who were they? What drove them? And perhaps most importantly, what could they possibly hope to accomplish?

William Harvey and Blood Circulation

In 1628, British physician William Harvey wrote history. In April of that year, he published his masterpiece De Motu Cordis, or An Anatomical Exercise on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Living Beings. In it, he describes the results of years of painstaking experiments, measurements, and observations, and concludes that blood is pumped through the body by the heart.

As intuitive as his discovery may sound to us, it was indeed very far removed from accepted medical science at the time. Before Harvey, blood was believed to be generated in the stomach, as a byproduct of the digestion of food. It would make its way through the body, constantly being warmed up by the heart. After reaching its boiling point, it would then evaporate and leave the body through the lungs. Breathing was the exhaling of fumes of vaporized blood. The human body as a steam engine, with the heart being the furnace, and the mouth as a steam whistle.

Fortunately, William Harvey lived in an exciting time, one we now call the Scientific Revolution. Classic ideas about how the world worked were increasingly being turned on its head by experimental science. Ancient writers, such as the Greek philosopher Aristotle and the Roman physician Galen, had dominated medieval intellectual life for centuries. Their works were treated as gospel – literally. Just like the Bible contained all knowledge one could possibly need about morality, Galen was the only textbook one could ever need on medicine. And if the Reformation was an out-of-hand conflict about the Bible’s interpretation, medieval medical science was a continuing feud about interpreting Galen and Aristotle. If your patient died, you had simply misinterpreted Galen’s instructions. They could not possibly have been wrong.

Now that the ancients were slowly but surely falling out of favor as experimental science proved them wrong, William Harvey’s words did not fall on deaf ears. In the decades following the publication of his book, Harvey’s work became the accepted theory on blood circulation. And by some, his work was not just read, but positively internalized.

Richard Lower and the First Blood Transfusion

Richard Lower was a London-based physician who,

26 min

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