When James Harrison was fourteen years old he had to go into hospital for major chest surgery – an operation that ended with him receiving thirteen litres of blood. This operation not only saved his life, it saved the lives of an estimated two million, two hundred thousand people born since then. You see, the operation convinced James to become an organ donor and also to donate blood regularly. It was shortly after his first donation that he was found to be carrying a very rare antibody in his blood. This antibody, found in one out of every two million people on average, can be used to fight a particularly nasty disease called Rhesus. This disease creates an incompatibility between the mother’s blood and the blood of the baby she’s carrying. At the time that this antibody was discovered in James Harrison, thousands of babies were dying thanks to Rhesus and many more were suffering permanent brain damage, amongst other development problems, due to it. This was in 1950.
Sixty years later and James (now seventy-four years old) is still giving blood every few weeks, and expected to hit his thousandth donation in September. His plasma has been used to develop a vaccine (introduced in 1977) that can be given to mothers to fight Rhesus and also given to babies to stop them developing Rhesus when they get older. This “Anti-D” vaccine is estimated to have saved the lives of approximately 2.2 million babies so far and it wouldn’t have been possible without Mr Harrison’s compliance with the project and continued donations of blood. It’s hard to imagine just how many billions of lives will be saved or improved in the long run thanks to this man’s contributions to modern medicine. He is truly a saviour of mankind.