In His Blood: How One Man’s Idea for the First Blood Bank Saved the World

March 16, 2017 at 1:32 pm

“The world and its creation is the great divine miracle before which humanity bows reverently, but not without hope of an ultimate better understanding”
-Dr. Bernard Fantus

On March 15, 1937, a Jewish Hungarian-American doctor named Bernard Fantus changed the world. Trained as both a pharmacist and a physician, his revolutionary idea for a “blood preservation laboratory” at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital aimed to solve what was, at the time, a persistent problem in medicine.

In the early 20th century, physicians with a patient who needed a blood transfusion would try in desperation to locate the patient’s friends and family members in the hope that there would be someone among them who had with the same blood type as their patient. But tragically, often doctors either weren’t able to find anyone with the correct blood type, or their patient would perish before they found someone suitable.

To Dr. Bernard Fantus, there had to be a better way. Surgery and medicine were becoming more complex, and the need for blood only grew. The early-1900s saw a significant amount of progress in the field of hematology throughout the globe. In 1901, Austrian physician Dr. Karl Landsteiner discovered the A, B and O human blood types and the following year, Drs. Alfred Decastello and Adriano Sturli discovered the AB type.[1] In 1907, Dr. Reuben Ottenberg performed the first blood transfusion using blood typing and cross-matching and discovered the universality of the O blood type.[2]

These discoveries were compelling to Dr. Fantus, but none so much as that of Russian scientist S.S. Yudin, who, after determining the length of time it takes for blood to coagulate, was able to successfully preserve and use cadaver blood for transfusion. Dr. Fantus knew that cadavers could not provide a steady-enough supply of blood to the people of Chicago; he wanted to try it with living donors, but he needed a way to convince people to donate enough blood to create a standing stockpile.

So on March 15, 1937, Dr. Fantus created the world’s first “blood bank” at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. Blood preservation was nothing new at the time; blood had been shipped to the front lines in World War I and the Mayo Clinic started storing blood for up to fourteen days in 1935.

But it was Fantus’ “bank” idea of blood collection that was new. And he chose the term “blood bank” on purpose. In the July 10, 1937 edition of his weekly column in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), he explained the reason to his peers. “Just as one cannot draw money from a bank unless one has deposited some, so the blood preservation department cannot supply blood unless as much comes in as goes out. The idea of a ‘bank’ is not a mere metaphor.”[3]

In the beginning, Cook County Hospital kept a “Blood Bank Account” ledger that kept track of people’s “deposits” into their accounts when they donated blood and their “withdrawals” when they received some and hospital staff could collect $10 from a patient to pay a donor.[4]

Blood Bank

Ledger of accounts at the Cook County Hospital Blood Bank. The purpose of the ledger was to keep track of the blood supply for patients in need and the responsibility of physicians to recruit donations to replace their withdrawals. One unit on this record was unsuitable with a positive Kahn syphilis serology test, so Dr. CJ’s balance was reduced by 500 mL.

The impending Second World War would underscore the importance of blood banks, and donating blood became a sign of patriotism for Americans, who donated 13.3 million pints of blood by the end of the war.[5]

Since those early days, blood donation has come a long way. It’s safer, smarter, and it’s saved countless lives. Those advances can be credited to the formation of the American Association of Blood Banks in 1947, the introduction of plasmapheresis in 1964 and of first use of apheresis machines to extract one cellular component in 1972, among many other breakthroughs. But many would say that at their core, blood banks today owe their existence to the idea of just one man: Dr. Bernard Fantus.

Fantus had many causes and passions in his life – teaching his students, encouraging his colleagues to share their discoveries for the greater good, and looking for ways that medicine could reduce the suffering of the poor. He crusaded against newspapers that ran advertisements for sham medicines and used his skills as a pharmacist to create what he called “candy medicine” to “rob childhood of one if its terrors, namely, nasty medicine.” But the most impactful thing he did for humanity by far, the thing that endures strongly to this day, 78 years after his death, is the legacy of America’s very first blood bank.

That legacy is the 6.8 million Americans who donate nearly 21 million blood components every year. That legacy the is millions of people who could not have survived cancer, chronic illness, life-threatening injuries or surgery without blood transfusions. And that legacy is the one person every two seconds who needs blood and whose doctors, thanks to Dr. Bernard Fantus’ groundbreaking idea, can get it to them in time.[6]

“Dr. Fantus’ idea revolutionized surgery and transfusion therapy. Most major surgery done today would be impossible without the existence of blood banks. Today we take them for granted, but in fact we owe their existence to the creative thinking of a pioneer of American medicine.”
President Ronald Reagan, 6/29/1987

- William Harper, Masters in Journalism student at University of Oregon