The True Story of the First Blood Transfusion in History

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On June 15, 1667, French physician Jean-Baptiste Denys, performed the first successful human blood transfusion. Before he performed a blood transfusion on humans, Denys was already experimenting with blood transfers between animals including calves, dogs, and sheep. These were well documented and published in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions.

While his first human blood transfer was successful, it was far from ideal. Denys was presented with a 15-year-old boy who was drowsy and feverish after being leeched twenty times by other physicians. As a result, the boy lost too much blood.

To perform the transfusion, Denys used 12 ounces of sheep blood. Blood was taken from the sheep’s carotid artery and was introduced to the boy’s bloodstream through a vein in his inner elbow. Denys recorded the transfusion’s success, reporting that the boy fully recovered and even gained weight. He was said to be “an object of surprise and astonishment to all who knew him.”

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Fueled by this victory, Denys went on to perform the same transfusion to another patient, a laborer, who also survived the procedure without complications. Unfortunately, the transfusion’s success became short-lived as his third patient, a Swedish royal called Gustaf Bonde, died after the second transfusion.

You would expect Denys to rethink his methods, but in the winter of the same year, he went on to transfer calf’s blood to Antoine Mauroy, a mentally ill man. Mauroy, as with the previous patient, succumbed to death by the third transfusion. Mauroy’s wife sued Denys in court, saying that the physician was responsible for the death of her husband. Facing a murder charge, Denys was eventually acquitted, as it turned out that Mauroy’s death was caused by arsenic poisoning. It was, later on, discovered that his wife was responsible for the crime.

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After the trial, Denys quit his practice and never experimented with blood transfusion again. His practice fueled a considerable controversy in the country, and by 1670, France banned any experimentation and medical procedures involving animal blood.

It is said that Denys’ first two patients survived because of the small amount of animal blood given to them and that neither patients had an allergic reaction or infection. The process of inter-species blood transfer is called Xenotransfusion and is not considered to be a safe way to transfuse blood as it poses a high risk of transmitting infectious diseases. On the other hand, Denys’ succeeding patients received more than one round of transfusion. The additional doses of blood administered for the second and third time were the likely cause of his other patient’s death, except Mauroy who died of poisoning.

Despite Denys’ errors in performing the transfusion, his experiments still contributed to the progress and science of blood transfusion. In 1902, Austrian biologist Karl Landsteiner established the four main blood groups and developed a better process of blood transfusion that is safe and effective for both donors and patients.