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Taking Credit: The Canadian Army Medical Corps and the British Conversion to Blood Transfusion in WWI
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Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 56.3 (2001) 238-277

It was not until 1917, when the British Army Medical Corps was being steadily reinforced with officers from the United States of America, that knowledge of blood transfusion began to be spread through the armies.

—Geoffrey Keynes, 1922

My chief object was to emphasise as much as possible the fact that the Canadians were pioneers on the western Front, in introducing this life-saving measure as a treatment of the wounded in war. . . . The Americans are hot-foot after the exploitation of the transfusion of blood in France.

—Unsigned letter to A. G. Adami, 1918

THE history of blood transfusion has its share of intractable myths. Most notably, there are the many myths of Charles Drew, who is often credited with pioneering the use of blood plasma and creating blood banking, only to be martyred at the hands of racist doctors who refused to transfuse the critically injured African American with “white” blood. Then there is the Landsteiner creation myth: that, in some mysterious way, Karl Landsteiner’s serological studies on blood typing brought modern transfusion into existence. Though both Landsteiner and Drew made important contributions to the development of transfusion, neither actually filled his mythic shoes. Yet, despite repeated historical efforts to correct these fallacies, they remain perpetual ingredients in the stock of common knowledge, replenished continually in lectures, articles, and “M*A*S*H” reruns. Their persistence is certainly facilitated by the joining of two great powers: blood as metaphor and a good story.

In this essay, I hope to dislodge another myth about blood transfusion. This one is not quite so glamorous as its more famous cousins; however, it does share a few important familial traits: national identities, the power of great men, the (often assumed) simplicity of technology transfer, and the persuasiveness of a good story. This myth concerns the British acceptance of the efficacy of blood transfusion during the Great War. It is generally assumed that the United States’s entry into World War I in 1917 not only infused fresh blood into the British line figuratively, but also literally: that American physicians brought the practice of blood transfusion with them when they arrived in France, and the British, seeing its power, embraced it. Like the Landsteiner and Drew myths, the myth of the American introduction of blood to the British has some elements of truth but is essentially false. Corrections of this myth, however, have been few and subtle. In fact, though doctors from the United States led the reintroduction of blood transfusion at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was the Canadians who laid the foundation and, at a fundamental level, precipitated the British conversion to blood. They did this from within British wartime medical organizations, definitions, and conditions that gave a distinctive shape to their transfusion efforts. The more southerly North Americans, who really began to arrive in France from June 1917, worked within this Canadian–British system to broaden the popularity of a technique that had already begun to take root.

What broader historical significance could such an apparently minor instance of nationalistic bickering over priority, for what was then arguably a statistically inconsequential surgical procedure, have? Moreover, wouldn’t the relatively rapid extension transfusion enjoyed from the summer of 1918 suggest that, whatever role the Canadians played, it was of no real consequence—that the Americans, in truth, were responsible for bringing blood to Britain? By following only these stories of small statistics and large gestures, one mistakes flash for substance. Certainly, the extension of blood transfusion during WWI set the stage for the far larger acceptance of the still-experimental procedure after the war’s end. Yet this only makes the story of wartime transfusion of subsequent importance. More immediately for our historical actors, the thousands saved by transfusion might have been few in number compared to the total number of war casualties, but few would argue that, consequently, they were of little importance, particularly among those blood had saved. Further, as I shall demonstrate, there is strong evidence to suggest that surgeons found in blood transfusion some restoration of...

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