A Question of Blood, Race, and Politics

A Question of Blood, Race, and Politics

Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences
Volume 61, Number 4 (2006)
pages 456-491
DOI: 10.1093/jhmas/jrl003

Michael G. Kenny, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology
Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia

This article explores the political and intellectual context of a controversy arising from a proposal made at the 1959 meetings of the American Society of Blood Banks to divide the blood supply by race. The authors, a group of blood-bankers and surgeons in New York, outlined difficulties in finding compatible blood for transfusion during open-heart surgery, which they attributed to prior sensitization of their patient, a Caucasian, by a previous transfusion from an African American donor. Examining the statistical distribution of blood-group antigens among the various races, they concluded that risk of adverse hemolytic reactions and the cost of testing could be reduced by establishing separate donor pools. The media reported the suggestion, which, given the political climate of the day, rapidly became a public issue involving geneticists, blood-bankers, physical anthropologists, and the African American medical community. Liberals condemned it, whereas eugenically inclined segregationists used the finding to support their views concerning evolutionary distance between the races and the dangers of miscegenation. Here we examine the contribution of comparative racial serology to this affair, the arguments and background of the main players, and the relevance of the debate to discussions about the role of “race” in post-genomic medicine.

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