1666: Samuel Pepys, writing in his famous diary, records the first description of a blood transfusion.
Pepys (whose name is usually pronounced Peeps, or occasionally Peppis) was an able administrator for the Royal Navy, as well as a member of Parliament. But he is best remembered for his sprawling diary kept during the tumultuous mid-1600s, a time that saw such events as the Great Plague of London and the Great Fire of London in 1666. He also wrote extensively on the more mundane aspects of everyday life in Restoration England.
Pepys began writing his diary as a vanity project. According to a Duncan Grey’s Pepys website, Pepys was proud of his achievements, and “writing down events involving him gave him great pleasure; re-reading them even more so.”
His observations of the dog-to-dog transfusion were made barely four decades after English physician William Harvey declared that blood circulated through the body with the heart acting as the pump. Harvey actually rediscovered what had been at least partially discovered much earlier by Ibn al-Nafis, a 13th-century Arab physician.
Such was the ignorance of the circulatory system before Harvey that as Pope Innocent VIII lay dying in 1492, his physician suggested introducing fresh blood to the pontiff — orally. It didn’t work.
The idea of replenishing or replacing blood through transfusion caught on shortly after Harvey’s work became known. Physicians, notably Richard Lower, experimented widely using animals, devising instruments and studying ways to get around the problems of clotting. It was Lower who performed the first successful blood transfusion between dogs in 1665. Or partially successful: The donor dog bled to death.
Pepys observed pretty much the same thing a year later:
The experiment of transfusing the blood of one dog into another was made before the Society by Mr. King and Mr. Thomas Coxe upon a little mastiff and a spaniel with very good success, the former bleeding to death, and the latter receiving the blood of the other, and emitting so much of his own, as to make him capable of receiving that of the other.
This did give occasion to many pretty wishes, as of the blood of a Quaker to be let into an Archbishop, and such like; but, as Dr. Croone says, may, if it takes, be of mighty use to man’s health, for the amending of bad blood by borrowing from a better body.
Within a year, both Lower and a French physician, Jean-Baptiste Denys, did just that, performing the first transfusions involving human subjects. In Denys’ case, a 15-year-old boy received the blood of a sheep and somehow survived, probably because of the relatively little amount of blood used.
Owing to a complete absence of understanding regarding the importance of species and blood-type compatibility, subsequent human transfusions were only sporadically successful, and the benefits were dubious. Things only improved with the discovery of distinct blood types in the early 20th century.
The first successful transfusion using only human blood was performed in 1818 by British obstetrician James Blundell.
Other factors that eventually brought blood transfusion into the modern era, such as blood banking and the discovery of the Rhesus blood-group system, occurred in the early to mid-20th century.
Image: Pepys’ view wasn’t this close.
This article first appeared on Wired.com Nov. 14, 2008.