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The First-Ever Blood Bank Opened 80 Years Ago Today

Its inventor also coined the term “blood bank”

Bernard Fantus coined the term "blood bank" (and opened the world's first) in 1937. (Smithsonian Institution Archives)
smithsonian.com

The problem of getting blood to patients who need it took a step towards being solved on this day in 1937, when a doctor at the Cook County Hospital in Chicago opened the first-ever “blood bank.”

Dr. Bernard Fantus’s team wasn’t the first to open a facility for transfusing blood. Person-to-person blood transfusion had successfully happened during World War I, writes James Janega for the Chicago Tribune. And in the 1930s, advances in blood preservation meant that blood could be kept viable for transfusion outside the body, for a few hours at least.

He took this research, which was done by Soviet scientists, a step farther, Janega writes. His research got results, and he recorded in the Journal of the American Medical Association that he was able to preserve blood for a record 10 days. Janega writes that "Fantus set out to establish a 'Blood Preservation Laboratory' at the hospital, only to change it before opening to the less squeamish and, history tells us, more advantageously named 'Cook County Hospital Blood Bank.'”

In 1941, a community-based blood center opened in San Francisco, and then in 1947 the American Association of Blood Banks was established. Relatively easy access to transfusable blood “made modern surgery possible,” Janega writes. The cost to open the original blood bank was $1,500, according to the Cook County Health & Hospitals System. That’s about $25,000 in today’s money. In its first year of operation it was used in 1,364 blood transfusions.  

Today, blood transfusions help almost five million Americans a year, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Although researchers are trying to figure out how to synthesize blood, there is currently no man-made alternative to human blood, and blood banks rely on donors for their supply.

Although the blood bank was the crowning achievement of Fantus’s career, writes Jennifer Carnig for The University of Chicago Chronicle, he was already associated with several other innovations. “Fantus was one of the country’s foremost experts on pharmaceutics and perfected the practice of candy-coating medicine for children,” she writes. “He also did work on hay fever, and in a less successful but noble attempt to stop Chicagoans’ sneezing, he had city workers attempt to remove the ragweed in the area.”

Fantus was an immigrant to the U.S., born in Budapest in 1874 and educated in Vienna. He graduated from the American College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1899 and served his internship at the same hospital that was the site of his later innovations. According to the University of Chicago, in his 1914 book Candy Medication “he wrote that his goals were to rob ‘childhood of one of its terrors, namely, nasty-tasting medicine.’”

Although candy medications are still making childhood (and perhaps adulthood) better today, the blood bank was his biggest innovation, the university records, as it “revolutionized the practice of medicine in the United States, and the world.”

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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