Sunday, 24 March 2013

17th-Century Blood Transfusions

Recently I was writing a scene where a character needed a blood transfusion. You're probably saying, "Wait a minute, they didn't give transfusions during the 17th-century, did they?" As it turns out, the 1600s claimed the first known successful transfusions. In 1613, a doctor by the name of William Harvey formulated the theory of blood circulation. Before then, blood was assumed to wash back and forth throughout the body like a tide. He tested his theory on corpses, so therefore didn't perform the first transfusion on a live person.

Around 1639, Francis Potter used quills as needles and tubes for the purpose of transfusion, and in 1649, he attempted the process between two chickens. Frustrated by the attempt, he was only able to get 2-3 drops of blood at a time.

Several others, familiar with Harvey's writings, attempted the procedure with animals. Robert Boyle in the mid-1600s, injected dogs with "liquors," which were substances that could include ale, wine, and opium. As one might guess, these experiments usually ended poorly for the dogs in question.

Dr. Richard Lower is credited with the first animal to human transfusion. His technique led from the carotid artery to a vein. However, the transfusion failed because the blood clotted in the silver tubing he used for the purpose. Nearly a year later, Lower was successful in transfusing a man from a sheep with his technique.

Meanwhile in France, Dr. Jean Baptiste-Denys was performing similar experiments. The people that were transfused with lamb's blood had severe reactions, which we now know happens if a person receives the wrong blood type. Denys transfused a couple of people with lamb's blood, and they survived, most likely due to the fact that they had received too little blood to get an allergic reaction. Another man, who received a transfusion, died after the second one. In 1668, Denys once again attempted a transfusion between a calf and a man with what appeared no outward effects. Two days later, he attempted to transfuse the man a second time, and "as soon as the blood entered his veins, he felt the heat along his arm..." The man survived, only to succumb after a third transfusion several months later.

As a result, the French parliament banned transfusions. The British parliament and Vatican followed suit soon after.

As for my character, since I have a time traveler involved, I was able to mix the scene using 17th-century equipment and early 20th-century knowledge.

Kim Murphy


Sally Johnson said...

Fascinating: I knew about william Harvey and Robert Boyle, but not the other two. Do you know anything about the "recipients"? What possessed someone to volunteer for these experiments ... maybe illness or poverty?

Anita Davison said...

I was aware Christopher Wren was interested in the circulatory system and experimented on opium injections as an anesthetic which he demonstrated at Gresham College for the Royal Society - though not that transfusions were being done at this stage. Fascinating Kim

Kim Murphy said...

Most of the recipients survived because they had so many mechanical difficulties. When they got a little better at the process is when the recipients started dying, hence the banning of transfusions.