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19th-century medicine: Milk was used as a blood substitute for transfusions

Believe it or not, for a few decades, giving people "milk transfusions" was all the rage.

  • Prior to the discovery of blood types in 1901, giving people blood transfusions was a risky procedure.
  • In order to get around the need to transfuse others with blood, some doctors resorted to using a blood substitute: Milk.
  • It went pretty much how you would expect it to.

For the bulk of human history, medical science has been a grim affair. Modern innovations in the scientific process and medical techniques mean that we can determine with a good deal of accuracy what's going to work and what won't, and we can test those theories in a relatively safe and scientifically sound way.

Not true for the past. Take blood transfusions, for instance. Prior to the discovery of blood types by Karl Landsteiner in 1901 and effective methods of avoiding coagulation when transfusing blood, human beings who had lost significant amounts of blood were pretty screwed, and not just because of the loss of blood, but also because of what we used to replace it with.

For a brief and bizarre time in the late 19th century, scientists were convinced that milk was the perfect substitute for lost blood.

A early blood transfusion from a rather unhappy-looking lamb to man. Image source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

The first successful transfusion of blood was performed in the 17th century by a physician named Richard Lower. He had developed a technique that enabled him to transfer blood without excess coagulation in the process, which he demonstrated when he bled a dog and then replaced its lost blood with that from a larger mastiff, who died in the process. Aside from being traumatized and abused, the receiving dog recovered with no apparent ill effects. Lower later transfused lamb blood into a mentally ill individual with the hope that the gentle lamb's temperament would ameliorate the man's insanity. The man survived; his mental illness persisted.

In 1667, Jean-Baptiste Denys transfused the blood of a sheep into a 15-year-old boy and a laborer, both of which survived. Denys and his contemporaries chose not to perform human-to-human transfusions since the process often killed the donor. Despite their initial successes, which likely only occurred due to the small quantities of blood involved, the later transfusions made by these physicians did not go so well. Denys, in particular, became responsible for the death of the Swedish Baron Gustaf Bonde and that of a mentally ill man named Antoine Mauroy.

Ultimately, these experiments were condemned by the Royal Society, the French government, and the Vatican by 1670. Research into blood transfusion stopped for 150 years. The practice had a brief revival in the early 19th century, but there had been no progress — many of the same problems were still around, like the difficulty of preventing blood from coagulating and the recipients' annoying habits of dying after their lives had just been saved by a blood transfusion. How best to get around blood's pesky characteristics? By the mid 19th century, physicians believed they had an answer: Don't use blood at all but use a blood substitute. Milk seemed like the perfect choice.

The first injection of milk into a human took place in Toronto in 1854 by Drs. James Bovell and Edwin Hodder. They believed that oily and fatty particles in milk would eventually be transformed into "white corpuscles," or white blood cells. Their first patient was a 40-year-old-man who they injected with 12 ounces of cows' milk. Amazingly, this patient seemed to respond to the treatment fairly well. They tried again with success. The next five times, however, their patients died.

Despite these poor outcomes, milk transfusion became a popular method of treating the sick, particularly in North America. Most of these patients were sick with tuberculosis, and, after receiving their blood transfusions, typically complained of chest pain, nystagmus (repetitive and involuntary movements of the eyes), and headaches. A few survived, and, according to the doctors carrying out these procedures, seemed to fare better after the treatment. Most, however, fell comatose and died soon after.

Most medical treatments today are first tested on animals and then on humans, but for milk transfusions, this process was reversed. One doctor, Dr. Joseph Howe, decided to perform an experiment to see whether it was the milk or some other factor causing these poor outcomes. He bled several dogs until they passed out and attempted to resuscitate them using milk. All of the dogs died.

From "Observations on the Transfusion of Blood," an illustration of James Blundell's Gravitator. Image source: The Lancet

However, Howe would go on to conduct another experiment in milk transfusion, believing that the milk itself wasn't responsible for the dogs' deaths, but rather the large quantity of milk he had administered. He also eventually hypothesized that the use of animal milk — he sourced it from goats — in humans was causing the adverse reactions. So, in 1880, Howe gathered three ounces of human milk with the goal of seeing whether using animal milk was somehow incompatible with human blood.

He transfused this into a woman with a lung disease, who stopped breathing very quickly after being injected with milk. Fortunately, Howe resuscitated the woman with artificial respiration and "injections of morphine and whiskey."

By this time, around 1884, the promise of milk as a perfect blood substitute had been thoroughly disproved. By the turn of the century, we had discovered blood types, and a safe and effective method of transfusing blood was established. Would these discoveries have occurred without the dodgy practice of injecting milk into the bloodstream? It's difficult to say. At the very least, we can say with confidence that life is much better — less hairy — for sick people in the 21st century than in the 19th.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

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  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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