Blood Purity: How a Bizarre Obsession Advanced Science

Nevertheless, during the Weimar Republic, this mistaken belief influenced even the justice system, with many judges placing great importance on a suspect's blood type. This can be seen in the case of the murder of a young man named Helmut Daube. Karl Hussmann, a friend at school, fell under suspicion of having first slashed Daube's throat before cutting off his genitals. But, in the end, prosecutors failed to establish the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. As Spörri writes, "Hussmann was lucky enough to have type O blood and not type B, since numerous medical professionals believed type B blood occurred particularly often among dangerous criminals."

Then there was the doctor at a university hospital in Munich who wrongly believed that he was hot on the trail of an important medical discovery after an intensive study of bowel movements: "The duration of defecation also exhibits differences between the two groups, taking only a few minutes on average for type A, but often much longer (20-40 minutes) for type B." Researchers believed that individuals who spent extended time on the toilet were found more often among the residents of large cities to the east, such as Berlin and Leipzig, while the supposedly more elevated people with blood group A existed in greater frequency among the rural population in the west of the country.

Worries about Mixing and Impurities

This seemingly manic dogma among scientists about racial purity had disastrous consequences for the development of blood donation in Germany, which fell behind even as the United States, Great Britain and France were actively developing blood-drive programs in the first years after World War I.

Owing to their concerns about mixing and introducing impurities into the blood, German doctors were only willing to perform transfusions of fresh whole blood introduced directly into the vein of the receiving patient. In the US, on the other hand, doctors worked with blood that had been treated with sodium citrate as an anticoagulant, an advance that came as a blessing for patients, since it prevented the blood from clotting as a result of the transfusion. German doctors considered this anticoagulant a dangerous synthetic product, although numerous doctors had certainly noticed the medical disadvantages inherent in the German method.

For one thing, a direct whole blood transfusion required both donor and recipient to lie next to one another on a pallet during the transfusion. "We have experienced a number of times, at numerous blood transfusions, that the close proximity to the cold extremity of the moribund patient arouses severe aversion in the donor, which is further increased by the unsettling surroundings," complained Austrian surgeon Burghard Breitner.

Not until Germany's collapse with the end of World War II did the blood-purity mania come largely to an end. At that point, even Ludwik Hirszfeld admitted that blood group research in Germany had "served a bad cause." Yet the scientist, who died in 1954, was at peace with his own role, declaring in his memoirs that he had felt obligated "to take a stand against such an abuse of science."

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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