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February 11, 2005
My current blood lady is the best one I've ever had: she enters my vein quickly, so gently I don't feel a thing. Now open your fist, she says quietly, and together we watch in silence as two little tubes fill rapidly with my deep purple blood.

The ancients believed that life lived in the blood itself, having seen what happened when too much blood left the body. And it is true that the history of life lives in the blood: it shows us what victories have been won against what diseases, and what battles are still in progress. It tells what is happening to the muscles right now. It shows us when death has begun in the heart, and when its progress has been interrupted. It tells us about food and water, and signals frantically if kidney or liver or pancreas are overwhelmed.

The first blood transfusion was attempted in 1492 on the Pope, who managed to receive most of the blood but died anyway. Doctors in the 16th century hoped to cure illness by transfusing blood from animals to humans, but too many people died. The first human-to-human blood transfusion was successfully performed in Philadelphia by the appropriately-named Dr. Philip Syng Physick in 1795. In 1818, a British husband gave blood to his wife to save her from a terrible postpartum hemorrhage. During most of the 19th century, doctors in the United States transfused milk from sheep and cows into the veins of people who had lost blood -- saline solution was substituted for the milk later on the century with much better results. In 1901, blood was "typed," and the universality of type "O" donors was recognized.

Just in time for World War I, a technique was discovered to arrest the coagulation of blood so that it could be stored and transfusions performed when donor and recipient were not in the same place. Treating patients for shock by injecting albumin into the blood arrived on the scene in time to treat the victims of Pearl Harbor, and the heavy plastic blood bags familiar to us in hospitals and laboratories replaced the older and very fragile glass blood bottles in time for the Korean War. The discovery that blood platelets could be stored at room temperature was made during the Vietnam war.

I suppose the science of hematology always advances during a war; there is so much blood.
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