World Blood Donor Day: What is the history of blood transfusion and donation?

Published Jun 14, 2021 • By Courtney Johnson

Celebrated on June 14th each year, World Blood Donor Day is a day organized by the World Health Organization and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to raise awareness about the importance of blood donation and to thank donors for their voluntary, yet life-saving gift of blood.

Why do we donate blood? What happens to the blood we donate? What is the history of blood donation and transfusion?

We explain it all in our article!

World Blood Donor Day: What is the history of blood transfusion and donation?

Blood transfusion and blood products help to save millions of lives each year. But what is this history of this medical practice? What happens to blood once it is donated? Read on to learn more!

What is blood transfusion?

Blood transfusion is a routine medical procedure in which a patient receives donated blood through a narrow tube placed in his or her arm. It is a potentially life-saving procedure that can help replace blood lost due to an injury or surgery or provide it in case the patient’s body does not produce blood properly. 

Why is blood transfusion done?

Patients may receive a blood transfusion for many reasons, including surgery, injury, a health condition and/or a bleeding disorder (anemia, sickle cell disease, Von Willebrand disease, hemophilia, cancer, etc.).

Four types of blood products (components in the blood) may be given through a blood transfusion:

  • Red blood cells: oxygen-carrying cells that help remove waste products
  • White blood cells: cells that help the body to fight infection
  • Platelets: cell fragments that help the blood to clot
  • Plasma: the liquid part of blood that takes nutrients, hormones, and proteins to the parts of the body that need it

A transfusion provides the patient with the part or parts of blood he or she needs, with red blood cells being the most commonly transfused. Whole blood (WB), which contains all four blood components, can also be transfused, but whole blood transfusions are not very common.

Researchers are also working on developing artificial blood. So far, no viable replacement for human blood is available.

What happens to blood once it is donated?

During a blood drive or other blood collection, donated blood goes through a number of steps before it reaches the patient.

1. Donation

During donation, the donor is asked about his or her health history and is given a mini-physical, which is noted into a donor record and labeled with a corresponding bar code label.

About 1 pint of blood is collected in addition to a few test tubes, which are collected for testing. The donation and test tubes are kept on ice before being taken for processing or sent to a lab.

2. Processing

At a processing center, information about the donation is scanned into a database. The majority of whole blood donations are spun in centrifuges to separate into transfusable components (red cells, platelets, and plasma).

Plasma may be further processed into components like cryoprecipitate, a substance rich in clotting factors. Platelets and red cells are leuko-reduced, meaning that the white blood cells are removed to reduce the chance of a negative reaction in the donation recipient. These components are then packaged into a “unit”, which is a standardized quantity that doctors use when transfusing a patient.

3. Testing

At the same time that processing is occurring, the samples are sent to a lab, where more than a dozen tests are performed to establish the blood type (A, B, AB, or O) and to check for any disease markers. If a test comes back positive, the donation will be discarded and the donor will be notified in a confidential manner.

4. Storage

Once the tests are completed, units found to be safe for transfusion are labeled and stored.

Red cells are stored in 6°C (42.8°F) refrigerators for up to 42 days, platelets are stored in room temperature agitators for up to 5 days, and plasma is frozen and stored for up to one year.

5. Distribution

Blood is kept available to be delivered to hospitals 24/7. Hospitals normally keep units of blood available, but in case of emergencies, may call for more.

6. Transfusion

At the end of the process, a sick or injured patient arrives at a hospital or treatment center, where doctors determine whether he or she requires a transfusion, and if so, of which type. The necessary transfusion will then be administered, thanks to the donor at the start of the blood donation chain.

What is the history of blood transfusion and donation? Where did it all start?

Blood and its understanding in medicine has a long history, notably with the use of bloodletting (the withdrawal of blood from a patient to prevent or cure an illness), used by the Egyptians as early as the 2500s BCE, and well documented in Western medicine up until the late 1800s.

The modern understanding of transfusion did not fully appear until the 17th century, after British physician William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood in 1628. From this period onward, a number of successful blood transfusions occurred between animals and humans, notably by Jean-Baptiste Denis in France and Richard Lower in England in 1667, but the practice was prohibited by law within a decade due to human bodily reactions.

It wasn’t until 1818 that human-to-human transfusion was achieved: British obstetrician James Blundell performed the first successful transfusion of human blood to treat postpartum hemorrhage. Using the patient’s husband as the donor, Blundell extracted approximately 4 ounces of blood and successfully transfused it to the wife, who survived the experience.

The 20th century dawned a new era in blood medicine with the discovery of the first three human blood groups (A, B, and O) by Karl Landsteiner, an Austrian biologist and physician, in 1901. The fourth blood group (AB) was discovered the next year. Later in the decade, American pathologist Ludvig Hektoen was the first to describe the principle of cross-matching, suggesting that transfusion safety could be improved by cross-matching blood between donors and patients to exclude incompatible type mixtures. In 1914, long-term anticoagulants, such as sodium citrate, were developed, allowing blood to be preserved for a longer period of time.

Between 1939 and 1940, the Rh (rhesus factor) blood group system was discovered by Landsteiner, Alexander Wiener, Philip Levin and R.E. Stetson, which identified the inherited protein that can be found on the surface of red blood cells, adding the + or - symbol to the ABO blood type. 

The 1940s was an important decade for blood transfusion and donation, as during this period the U.S. government set up the first national blood collection program, technology enabling doctors to separate plasma into its different components was developed, and the American Red Cross began its National Blood Donor Service, collecting more than 13 million pints of blood for soldiers fighting in World War II.

World War II-era propaganda poster encouraging citizens to donate blood, Whitman, 1945
University of North Texas Digital Library

In the decades following, further progress was made in the US, with the establishment of the American Association of Blood Banks’ Clearinghouse (now called the National Blood Exchange) in 1953 to provide a centralized system for exchanging blood among blood banks, a national blood policy supporting standardized practices, federal regulation of all US blood and plasma centers by the FDA, and an ending to paid blood donations in 1972, and further advances of blood preservation and storage through the 1970s and 80s.

Today, the American Red Cross reports that around 6.8 million Americans donate blood each year, contributing 13.6 million units of whole blood and red blood cells, which save countless lives each day!

If you’d like to donate blood, you can find a blood drive in your area using the American Red Cross’ search tool here.

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avatar Courtney Johnson

Author: Courtney Johnson, Health Writer

Courtney is a content creator at Carenity and focuses on writing health articles. She is particularly passionate about exploring the topics of nutrition, well-being, and psychology.

Courtney holds a double... >> Learn more

1 comment

on 7/6/21

Can people with MS donate blood ?

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