Today, few people realize that milk can be used in many medical procedures, least of all in blood transfusions, but for some, albeit a short, period of history, this substance was actually transfused instead of blood.
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Ever since humans have harmed themselves, there has been a need for blood replacement. According to some reports, the Spanish conquistadors allegedly witnessed how the Incas of Peru performed blood transfusions when they explored the New World. If true, although there is little evidence, this would be the earliest example of this type of procedure in the historical record. However, as soon as William Harvey described the circulation of the blood in 1616, European experiments—some more bizarre, others—became commonplace.
In 1666, at the Royal Society in London, Richard Lower, a physician and surgeon, transfused blood between two dogs, using a quill pen to connect an artery from one to the jugular vein of the other. In 1667, French physician Jean-Baptiste Denis performed the first fully documented blood transfusion from an animal to a human.
The patient was a teenage boy who had undergone twenty bloodlettings to treat a fever. According to Hippocratic medicine, the then dominant medical tradition, this was the standard procedure for removing supposed contaminants from the body, but the treatment left the boy understandably weak. Denis transfused blood from the lamb’s carotid artery into the boy’s veins. The boy survived and his condition improved, but the lamb did not.
The hope of a blood transfusion was that it would not only improve health and cure disease, but could even change the personality of the recipient and cure insanity. However, in most cases, the procedure only resulted in death, which eventually led to the Châtelet decree in 1668 forbidding blood transfusions, and more or less the procedure was forgotten for almost a century and a half.
The procedure had a brief resurgence in the early nineteenth century when obstetrician James Blundell performed a blood transfusion using a syringe containing defibrinated blood (blood without fibrin to help it clot) to prevent coagulation. Although this was an improvement over previous attempts, the process still did not catch on because it prevented coagulation and the patient’s propensity for death made the procedure unappealing. Then, in the middle of the nineteenth century, scientists suddenly came up with a new idea – why transfuse blood when you can transfuse something else? Why not milk?
In 1854, Drs. James Bovell and Edwin Hodder introduced milk to people during a cholera epidemic in Toronto, Canada. They were inspired by the work of Denis, who, in addition to transfusing blood from lambs to his patients, also administered milk to various animals, where he believed “the minute particles of oil and fat found in the milk” would be converted into “white blood cells”. Bovell and Hodder believed that milk helped regenerate white blood cells, and surprisingly, their first patient who received a milk transfusion actually survived and improved in health (the next five patients unfortunately died).
It was soon suggested that this treatment was a safe and legal substitute for blood. Milk transfusion is becoming a popular treatment, especially in North America. However, many medical practitioners remained skeptical, and the high number of deaths among patients who received it as a treatment soon led to its complete discredit. By the 1880s, saline infusions had replaced milk as a blood substitute. Then, at the turn of the century, after the discovery by Karl Landsteiner of the first three human blood types, a safe and effective method of blood transfusion was created.
Today, blood transfusion is a well-practiced and standardized medical procedure with about 4.5 million people transfused each year in America and about 2.5 million units in the UK. According to the World Health Organization, the demand for blood is so high that more than 118.5 million blood donations have been collected worldwide.
Blood transfusions save lives and are often given to people who have had severe blood loss from trauma, surgery, or childbirth. It is also used in a number of treatments for conditions such as hemophilia, kidney failure, and even cancer.