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Mixing humours: Ireland’s first blood transfusion

Ireland’s first (recorded) blood transfusion took place on this day in 1865 when, in a last-ditch attempt to save a girl’s life, a doctor gave her some of his own blood. It wasn’t a success . . . but it may have inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  The story begins a few weeks earlier…

On March 27th 1865, 14 year-old Mary Ann Dooley mangled her arm in a roller at the paper mill where she worked.  She was admitted to Jervis Street Charitable Infirmary in Dublin city, but later developed serious lock-jaw (tetanus).   Violent spasms prevented her from eating or drinking, and treatments with tobacco, chloroform, valerian and deadly nightshade were to no avail.

In a last-ditch attempt to save her life, Dr Robert McDonnell decided to give her some of his own blood, and on April 20th he performed Ireland’s first blood transfusion.   He took 12 fluid ounces of blood from his left arm; stirred the blood, strained it through muslin, then pumped it “into the corresponding vein in the patient’s left arm” using a syringe and piston

The young girl, conscious throughout, is said to have described “feeling an agreeable sensation, an undefined sensation of warmth”. The spasms continued, however, and she died the following day.

Undeterred, McDonnell conducted a dozen transfusions over the next decade, and recommended the procedure for treating various illnesses including cholera. Transfusing was safe and simple, he said, and the blood donor could be a patient’s relative or a willing medical student.  (This was 200 years after the first recorded blood transfusion: in 1665, Richard Lower in Oxford transfused blood from one dog to another.)

Incidentally, McDonnell’s experiment was probably the basis for the blood transfusion described in Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Stoker could have heard of the experiment from his brothers who were surgeons in Dublin at the time.   Jervis St Infirmary closed in 1980, and was replaced with a shopping centre.

Extract from our Ingenious Ireland, our guide book to Ireland’s scientific heritage.

Give blood: Ireland’s blood transfusion service.


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