Blood donation in the 1800s was not an easy process. Often doctors had to use whatever they had to hand during house calls — and what they had on hand, usually, was an egg-beater. Here’s how it was used.
The earliest transfusions were done in the 1600s, but the practice failed to catch on. This didn’t mean that doctors stopped trying, and in the mid-1800s, the procedure underwent a revival. There were two major reasons for this: cholera and childbirth. Doctors weren’t thinking about the function of blood while they were doing transfusions; they were thinking of blood as the stuff that brings a person vigor and life. Cholera and childbirth seemed to sap both, so doctors infused blood into their patients to restore them in a kind of reverse-bloodletting.
Cholera patients usually were seen in hospitals, or special wards set up in towns or on battlefields, so doctors had equipment on hand to help them through the transfusion process. Women who hemorrhaged during childbirth, however, were almost always in their own homes.
The transfusion procedure was finicky because blood, when exposed to air, clots up. Clots jammed the tubes that connected the donor to the receiver. Soon doctors discovered a way to get the lumps out. Blood contains a long protein called fibrin, which clumps together during the clotting process. It does this effectively enough that it can be separated out if it is tangled vigorously enough.
That’s is where the egg-beater comes in. Doctors would empty the donor blood into a vessel, then break out the beater, the whisk, or sometimes even clean bundles of broom-straw, and stir the blood until it formed large clumps. Once the blood was clotted to their satisfaction, the doctors would strain the blood through fine fabric, and transfuse the liquid into the patient.
Did the process help anyone? That’s tough to say. While some patients probably benefited from fewer blood clots being jammed into their veins, and some may have been saved by their transfusions, others blood recipients had probably only been kept alive because clots limited the amount of blood they received. Forget mismatched blood types. Doctors would sometimes give people animal blood—usually sheep’s blood, cattle blood, or dog’s blood. It would be decades before anyone knew enough about blood itself to make blood donation more helpful than harmful.
Today, the process is safe and reliable, and although that’s a good thing, I’d love to see infomercials for kitchen appliances that mentioned clot-removal as one of their functions.
[Source: Flesh and Blood, by Susan Lederer]