Blood rites

Published December 5, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

BLOOD looms large in our collective imaginations, regardless of what culture we belong to or what language we speak. In English, for example, ill feelings between two people are ‘bad blood’. When you’re carried away by emotion, it means that something has stirred your blood. When you’re angry it’s your blood that boils, and so on. Blood is emotion, heritage and character wrapped in a viscous, scarlet mixture. Most of all, to quote Count Dracula: blood is life.

Blood has also been considered medicine; in Ancient Rome, the blood of fallen gladiators was considered a cure for epilepsy. Gladiator matches would often witness crowd members running onto the arena floor trying to bottle the blood of less-fortunate fighters. There’s an interesting parallel with that belief and the South Asian belief that pigeon blood, being ‘hot’ can cure or ameliorate the effects of stroke-caused paralysis.

While we can scoff at these beliefs now, do note that during the peak of the Covid pandemic, the blood plasma of those who had recovered from Covid was in great demand, despite there being no evidence of it being beneficial. Then there’s the rather vampiric practice of injecting blood plasma from young people into older persons in an effort to increase vitality and longevity. Despite the FDA warning that such practices “have no clinical benefit” companies marketing this treatment are proliferating.

Then there’s the ‘vampire facial’, prompted by celebrities like Kim Kardashian; a gruesome skin care treatment involving a mask made from your own blood being spread across your face in order to rejuvenate the complexion. So yeah, before we get all smug about our ignorant ancestors, it’s humbling to consider what future generations will think of our own blood rites.

How will our vampiric practices be viewed?

Nevertheless, much of ancient medicine revolved around taking blood out of the body, thanks to the age-old, cross-cultural belief in the existence of ‘humours’ in the human body; these were fluids that, when in balance, lead to good health. Imbalance in these humours was considered the cause of most illness. Hence, early medics hit upon bleeding the patient in an attempt to remove ‘bad’ humours and restore balance.

It wasn’t until much later that they thought about putting blood into the body, and the chain of discoveries that led to this starts with Ibn al-Nafis, an Arab physician in the 13th century who first theorised the existence of pulmonary capillaries, 400 years before they were discovered by Marcello Malphigi. Then, in 1628, William Harvey figured out how blood circulates in the body and a few decades later, canine-to-canine transfusions took place.

In 1667, French physician Jean-Baptiste Denis transfused the blood of a lamb into a sick boy. The boy survived, as did Denis’ next patient. The third, however, passed away soon after and Denis was arrested for murder. Even though he was cleared of any wrongdoing, this effectively put an end to transfusion experiments for almost two centuries to the relief of the medical establishment which frowned upon such procedures, perhaps influenced by the ancient belief that blood carried memory and personality, and to thus transfuse the blood of animals or other humans into patients may have resulted in abominations.

Here one should note that medical folklore has it that the Incas were conducting successful human-to-human blood transfusions as early as the 1500s, and while this is a testament to their medical skills, it was also made possible by the fact that the Incas, being an isolated and homogenous population, all had the same blood type, which made the chances of rejection or reaction remote.

Indeed, it wasn’t until the discovery of blood types in 1901 by Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner that blood transfusion really took off, but even then, this discovery was hijacked by proponents of pseudoscience and racial theory.

The Nazis, for example, were obsessed with the purity of bloodlines and thought that blood types corresponded to different races; blood type A was the most desirable and ‘Aryan’ of the blood types, while blood type B was said to be found in mostly “psychopaths, hysterics and alcoholics”. Thus, having an ‘undesirable’ blood type was enough to relegate you to the ranks of the Untermenschen in those enlightened times.

Oddly, this theory made its way to Japan, and there developed a whole pseudoscience based on determining your personality on your blood type. Employers began asking for the blood types of potential hires, and the Japanese army even grouped soldiers according to blood type.

Despite the passage of decades, the belief lingers on, and the Japanese actually have a word for harassment/ discrimination based on blood types: ‘bura-hara’. But while humans will be humans, science is certainly marching on, and clinical trials on the world’s first 100 per cent lab-grown blood have begun. If nothing else, it’s certainly one reason to be sanguine about the future.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2022

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