The rich history of blood includes myths, misconceptions, and lifesaving medical advances

Steven D. Schwaitzberg, MD, FACS
Steven D. Schwaitzberg, MD, FACS

The word “blood” carries a cultural legacy of myths, misconceptions, and superstitions, according to Steven D. Schwaitzberg, MD, FACS, professor and chairman, department of surgery, University at Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, NY.

“Blood has a fascinating history and is associated with both good and disappointing behaviors in people and societies,” Dr. Schwaitzberg said. “Blood is both life-sustaining and life-taking, and it’s all over our language in both literal and figurative contexts, so it’s a great topic for surgeons to consider.”

Dr. Schwaitzberg will attempt to dispel the myths while offering a historical perspective on the “dark and light” cultural perceptions of blood when he delivers this year’s Excelsior Surgical Society/Edward D. Churchill Lecture: Blood and the Moving Wheels of History, Tuesday morning. The term is associated with superstitions all around the world, many of which continue today.

“In certain cultures, for instance, women who are menstruating are thought to be unclean because of their bleeding and are forced to live separately from their families during their menstrual period because of the fears of blood,” Dr. Schwaitzberg said. “Then, of course, the most well-known superstitions associated with blood stem from the mythology of vampirism, which has been and continues to be propagated throughout pop culture.”

Interestingly, some modern scholars have posited that people who were once thought to have been vampires, including the infamous Vlad the Impaler, may have suffered from a condition called porphyria, a rare group of blood disorders caused by abnormalities in the chemical steps that lead to heme production. Among the symptoms and manifestations of various porphyrias are pale skin and an aversion to sunlight, which would explain the appearance and nocturnal proclivities associated with the vampire mythology.

Moving from mythology to science, Dr. Schwaitzberg will discuss the evolution of blood transfusion, including the pioneering work of the lecture’s namesake, Col. Edward D. Churchill, MD, FACS, who was instrumental in bringing whole-blood transfusion to the battlefield, an advance that is credited with saving the lives of countless wounded soldiers. Dr. Churchill also was a leader in the development of regional blood banks to facilitate the use of blood transfusions.

“Unfortunately, there’s also a dark side to blood transfusion and blood donation,” Dr. Schwaitzberg said. “Blood and blood products have been a commodity at times and there are some serious ethical questions surrounding the sale and export of blood and the philosophy of donation—that is, paid blood versus volunteer blood sources and the good and the harm that it does.”

Dr. Schwaitzberg said advances in genomics and better testing capabilities will continue to make blood transfusions safer, while the development of artificial blood may completely obviate the need for human blood donation.

“The story of blood is still being written,” he said. “When we see those bags of blood hanging in the emergency department or operating room, it should leave us with a sense of wonder when we think about all the stories associated with blood. All those stories are in the bag.”

This lecture is named for the Excelsior Surgical Society, a group of 80 medical officers who met for the first time in 1945 at the Excelsior Hotel, Rome, Italy. The lecture also honors Dr. Churchill, a famous surgeon and consultant to the U.S. Army in the World War II Italian Theatre, who presented the first keynote address at the meeting.

Excelsior Surgical Society/Edward D. Churchill Lecture

Blood and the Moving Wheels of History
Steven D. Schwaitzberg, MD, FACS
9:45–10:45 am, Tuesday
Moscone Center South, 303–304