Wartime Service and Canadian Transfusion Medicine

This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.

Dr. Norman Bethune (right) Canadian Blood Transfusion Unit which operated during the Spanish Civil War circa 1936-1938, Spain. Source: Library and Archives Canada Copyright: Expired.

As Canada celebrates 150 years we look back on Canadian innovations in transfusion medicine over the years. A series of posts over the next few weeks feature remarkable Canadian progress – past, present and future.

Modern blood banking and transfusion medicine owe a great deal to Canadian wartime pioneers in battlefield medicine. For example, Dr. Lawrence Bruce Robertson’s insistence on whole blood for treatment of battlefield shock and hemorrhage established its medical importance in transfusion. This happened just as research on sodium citrate as an anticoagulant and buffers for red blood cell storage made advance collection from donors a more feasible option. However, it took another war before a civilian blood banking and transfusion service got started in Canada. Again, Canadian residents can thank pioneering wartime doctors for making it possible.

Dr. Norman Bethune and the Canadian Blood Transfusion Unit

Mobile blood banking for transfusion medicine featured in front-line medicine during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), when Canadian doctor Norman Bethune volunteered for action alongside the International Brigade. After receiving his medical degree in 1916, Bethune completed internships and worked in private practice before studying under Dr. Edward Archibald in thoracic surgery in Montreal.

This was the same Archibald who pioneered sodium citrate as an anticoagulant during World War I battlefield transfusion treatment. When Bethune didn’t find an opportunity to offer his surgical services in Spain, it was this experience in transfusion medicine from surgical practice that proved most valuable. Knowing that soldiers with battlefield injuries frequently benefit from treatment with whole blood, he saw an opportunity to support patients on the front line, using his transfusion experience to outfit a van as a mobile blood service….

Read the full story on RED, our Research, Education and Discovery blog

Dr. Charles Best and blood products for military hospitals

Dr. Charles Best, possibly most famous for his association with Frederick Banting’s Nobel Prize–winning work on insulin, pioneered methods for blood product storage that made them easier to ship overseas to the battle areas in World War II. His research and development of dried plasma products and validation of serum instead of whole blood for treating shock increased the versatility of blood banking and transfusion services for emergency medicine. This work, in conjunction with the Canadian Red Cross and government support, led to the establishment of the country’s first national blood banking and transfusion service….

Read the full story on RED, our Research, Education and Discovery blog

This story was written by Amanda Maxwell, for Canadian Blood Services, with grateful thanks to Dr. Jacalyn Duffin, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, for additional insights and materials.

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Canadian Blood Services is a not-for-profit charitable organization that operates independently from government. Created through a memorandum of understanding between the federal, provincial and territorial governments, we opened our doors in 1998. Our funding comes primarily from provincial and territorial governments.