Basic knowledge

The History of Blood Transfusion

Do you have any idea why the 14th June happens to be the World Blood Donor Day? Well, it´s Karl Landsteiner´s birthday. But who is Karl Landsteiner and what is his role in the history of blood transfusion.

The Role of Blood

Blood is a juice of rarest quality.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) in “Faust”

Blood is more than a body fluid. It fascinated and scared people for centuries as it stood for life and death at the same time.

… in our bodies

With around 7% of our body weight, blood performs essential tasks within our bodies, including:

  • the supply of oxygen and nutrients
  • the removal of waste
  • the detection and fight against antibodies
  • the coagulation: stops bleedings by producing a sticky fluid
  • the transportation of hormones
  • the regulation of the body´s core temperature

Many disorders/diseases can effect and/or can be found within the blood:

  • its volume, like injuries and dehydration
  • its circulation, like blood loss, infection, cardiac issues, or atherosclerosis. Due to age, smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes etc. arteries can get narrow.

Such diseases include leukemia (blood cancer), HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, sepsis and malaria.


For several thousand years – starting in Ancient Egypt till the late 1800s – bloodletting was used as universal treatment for many illnesses.

Bloodletting is …
when the physician or barber opens a vein. The blood loose is supposed to heal the patient. But often it weakened or even killed the patient.

… in culture

Blood has/had a divine aspect in many religions:

  • It was used in sacrifices and many indigenous peoples painted their bodies for ritual dances.
  • In Christianity Christ´s blood stands for the atonement of sins
  • In Judaism and Islam rules for blood in food consumption and production are set.
  • Jehovah´s Witnesses are against blood transfusion.

Beside religion, blood plays/played an essential role in popular culture

  • In East Asian cultures nosebleeding, especially form males, stand for erotic excitement. This can be seen in anime and manga.
  • Vampire legends show the thin line between life, erotic and death.
  • Artists, like Hermann Nitsch, used it to express themselves.

In many cultures the term “blood” was used over centuries to describe the belonging to a certain group of people: like a family or royality. But it was also used to divide: to draw an imagined line between slaves and their “owners” and in the Nazi regime to define “inferior” lives.

Blood was also used to describe someone´s temperament.

Karl Landsteiner

Karl Landsteiner (1868 –1943) became famous as the “father of transfusion medicine”. But he was not the first who did a blood transfusion. So why is he the “father of transfusion” then?

Milestones in blood transfusion before Landsteiner

The fundament was set by William Harvey, who found out how the circulation of blood worked, in 1628.

Richard Lower performed the first blood transfusion between 2 dogs (both survived) 1665:

[…] towards the end of February 1665 [I] selected one dog of medium size, opened its jugular vein, and drew off blood, until its strength was nearly gone. Then, to make up for the great loss of this dog by the blood of a second, I introduced blood from the cervical artery of a fairly large mastiff, which had been fastened alongside the first, until this latter animal showed […] it was overfilled […] by the inflowing blood.

Richard Lower

The first blood transfusion from animal (a sheep) to human was administered by Jean-Baptiste Denys in 1667. The 15-year old boy survived. Denys 3rd patient died in the procedure.
Due to its uncertainty a heated controversy happened and the Vatican condemned the experiments in 1670.

James Blundell succeeded as first in transfusing human blood to another human in 1818.

Landsteiner´s contribution to blood transfusion

Have you ever donated or received blood? Normally one of the first question the doctor asks: “What is your blood group?”
That the doctor thinks of this question and that you can answer it is thanks to the Austrian biologist and physician Karl Landsteiner.

In 1901 he distinguished A, B and C, which is now known as 0. His finding sank the risk of dying by a blood transfusion. With Alexander S. Wiener, he discovered the Rhesus factor in 1937.

Did you know that …
Landsteiner researched in many different fields of medicine: Together with Constantin Levaditi and Erwin Popper, he discovered the polio virus in 1909.

“For his discovery of human blood groups” Landsteiner received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1930.

The 4 Nobel Prize winners in 1930: Venkata Raman (physics), Hans Fischer (chemistry), Karl Landsteiner (medicine) and Sinclair Lewis (literature).

Tip: If you want to learn more about Landsteiner´s research, I can recommend you his Nobel Prize Lecture “On individual differences in human blood” from 11th December 1930.

Here a video that sums up the history of transfusion:

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