Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM)
University of Manchester
Seminar, Tuesday 19 May, 16:00-17:30
Room 2.57, Simon Building, Brunswick Street, Manchester, M13 9PL
Rare blood and unruly lives: transfusion, paper and genetics in the mid-twentieth century
Dr. Jenny Bangham (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin)
The plot of Emergency Call (1952)—part public-information film, part cinematic thriller—revolves around a search for ‘rare blood’. A five-year-old girl has arrived in hospital suffering from leukaemia, and to save her life the doctors need to transfuse her with three pints of blood. They realise that the only three people alive in the country of the correct blood group are: a missing boxer; a person they refer to as a “coloured” sailor; and a “murderer on the run”. The boxer is trying to evade the clutches of a criminal gang; the sailor refuses to donate owing to a past experience in which his blood was rejected because of the colour of his skin; while the ‘murderer’ is now hiding behind an assumed name and new identity. The film follows the heroic doctors as they set out to find and persuade the unruly would-be donors to give their blood.
This drama about ‘rare blood’ combines themes of race, civic duty, bureaucracy, and identity. These are also the major themes of my book project, which argues that the technologies of blood testing, storage, and administration expanded and consolidated the science of human genetics. During the mid-twentieth century, blood groups were abundantly produced and studied in hospitals, transfusion centres, doctors’ surgeries and university laboratories. They were also the first (and until the 1960s almost the only) sharply defined human genetic traits. Through the institutions, technologies and networks of blood transfusion, geneticists accumulated vast quantities of blood-group data, turning them into resources for studying human identity, difference and belonging. My paper offers a glimpse of how the infrastructures and bureaucracy of blood transfusion in Britain shaped postwar genetic research. It argues that the practices, politics and places of blood-group collection helped to establish the powerful authority of human life and its past.
Event co-organised by Ray Macauley and Amy Chambers