First Known Blood Transfusion

“On this day in 1666, the English physician Richard Lower successfully demonstrated a technique for passing the blood of one living mammal into the body of another, thus carrying out the first recorded blood transfusion in history. It was an important step towards understanding the capabilities of the blood system, and, despite being wildly ahead of its time, paved the way for full blood transfusion and all its associated medicinal benefits.

Richard Lower, born in the English county of Cornwall in 1631, trained as a physician at Christ Church, Oxford. In collaboration with several illustrious colleagues he carried out research into key aspects of human physiology, making important discoveries in the nervous and respiratory systems. He began experimenting with the heart and blood circulation independently, and before long became convinced of the possibilities of transfusing blood.

The first public demonstration took place at The Royal Society in London, in front of an audience of specially invited observers. In a crude arrangement, a medium-sized dog was severed at the jugular, and bled until approaching death. A second larger dog was then similarly cut, with its blood being introduced into the body of the first. Witnesses observed that, after Lower had sewn up the jugular veins, the smaller dog recovered “”with no sign of discomfort.”” The larger dog, it should be added, was not so lucky.

The following year, Lower carried out another experiment, this time going one step further. On this occasion the blood of a sheep was introduced into the body of a mentally compromised young man.

At the time of Lower’s experimentation, the medicinal benefits of blood transfusion were not abundantly clear, and the notion of replacing blood in the case of excessive trauma was not apparent. Lower had seen blood transfusion in another light, suggesting that blood replacement might produce a psychological benefit for the target. The rationale being that the introduction of sheep’s blood (or blood from a docile animal) into the body of a mentally disturbed man, might have a calming influence on his character.

It was not until the early 19th century that blood transfusion was re-evaluated as a potentially life-saving procedure. The English obstetrician James Blundell recognised that blood transfusion would benefit those who haemorrhaged during surgery, and by 1840 had successfully carried out the first full body blood transfusion. By the early 20th century the process was commonplace, and a national system of blood banks was established to ensure that a plentiful supply of blood was available for those who were in need of a transfusion.

Lower was less able to devote time to medical research in later life. He gained renown as a physician, and subsequently became high in demand. In 1675, Thomas Willis–who was the court physician and Lower’s mentor–died, and Lower was appointed into his place and attended King Charles in his last few years. He died in 1691.”