Again and Again in World War II, Blood Made The Difference

In 1940 the hard-driving Harvard biochemist Edwin Cohn broke plasma down into its different proteins and saved millions of soldiers’ lives

blood plasma
Private Roy W. Humphrey is being given blood plasma after he was wounded by shrapnel in Sicily in August 1943. Wikimedia Commons

Most fatalities in World War I occurred not from the direct physical damage of bullet wounds but from loss of blood. In the spring of 1940, as another war seemed inevitable, finding a way to replace lost blood became a medical priority.

Edwin Cohn, a Harvard biochemist, took on the problem of breaking down blood plasma to isolate a protein called albumin that could be stored for long periods without spoiling, shipped efficiently and used easily on a battlefield to save lives. Patriotic blood drives yielded whole blood from which a small inventory of albumin had been accumulated by December 7, 1941. It was rushed to Pearl Harbor where it proved enormously successful in the first battlefield setting.

Cohn was asked to head up a government effort to oversee the production of albumin. His work throughout the war to improve the process and the consequent successes of blood products on the battlefield are related by Douglas Starr, who is working on a history of the international blood industry.

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