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.

Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash
  • 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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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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