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First Hospital Blood Bank

Blood bank, John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County.

Serving the industrial hub of the nation, Cook County Hospital in Chicago (now America’s Essential Hospitals member John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County) opened a huge new facility in 1916 and, by 1925, was treating some 42,000 patients annually. It was an institution, wrote a contemporary, “where the turnover is rapid and emergencies constantly at hand.”

The hospital’s director of therapeutics, Bernard Fantus, a highly respected figure in American medicine, in 1937 created what is generally recognized as the first hospital-based blood exchange facility in the United States. The concept was soon copied the world over; and the brutalities of the Second World War would only underscore its vital significance. Knowledge and technology made the blood bank a much-desired innovation after the key discovery of the ABO blood groups by chemist and physician Karl Landsteiner in 1900.

The value of extra blood for surgery was obvious, but collection and, especially, storage were problems. Discovery of anticoagulants and ways to store blood, at least briefly, enabled Britain to use “blood depots” in World War I; and by the early 1930s, the Soviet Union had developed a system of blood exchange.

Although not widely publicized, the Mayo Clinic effectively employed a blood bank in 1935. But the facility that opened at Cook County Hospital on March 15, 1937, became widely understood as the first hospital blood bank, and Fantus’ article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that same year, titled “The Therapy of the Cook County Hospital,” was highly influential.

“No one acquainted with the situation constantly arising in large general hospitals doubts its value,” wrote LeRoy Sloan MD, in his obituary of Fantus in 1940. The model was adopted around the country and throughout the world.

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