In 1951, a 14-year-old Australian boy named James Harrison awoke from a major chest operation. Doctors had removed one of his lungs — and would keep him hospitalized for three months.
But Harrison was alive, thanks in large part to a vast quantity of transfused blood he had received, his father said.
At the time, Australia’s laws required blood donors to be at least 18 years old. It would be four years before Harrison was eligible, but he vowed that he too would become a blood donor. And he made good on his word, donating whole blood regularly. He disliked needles, so he averted his eyes and tried to ignore the pain.
Meanwhile, doctors were struggling to figure out why thousands of births in the country were resulting in miscarriages, stillbirths or brain defects for the babies.
“In Australia, up until about 1967, there were literally thousands of babies dying each year, doctors didn’t know why,” said Jemma Falkenmire, of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service.
The babies, it turned out, were suffering from hemolytic disease of the newborn, or HDN. The condition most often arises when a woman with an Rh-negative blood type becomes pregnant with a baby who has Rh-positive blood, and the incompatibility causes the mother’s body to reject the fetus’ red blood cells.
Doctors realized, however, that it might be possible to prevent HDN by injecting the pregnant woman with a treatment made from donated plasma with a rare antibody.
Researchers scoured blood banks to see whose blood might contain this antibody, and found a donor: James Harrison.
By then, Harrison had been donating blood for more than a decade. He said he didn’t think twice when scientists asked whether he would participate in what would become known as the Anti-D Program.
“They asked me to be a guinea pig, and I’ve been donating ever since,” he said.
Before long, researchers had developed an injection, called Anti-D, using plasma from Harrison’s blood. The first dose was given to a woman at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1967, said Robyn Barlow, the Rh program coordinator who found Harrison.
Harrison continued donating for more than 60 years, and his plasma has been used to make millions of Anti-D injections, the Red Cross said. Because about 17 percent of pregnant women in Australia require the injections, the blood service estimates Harrison has helped 2.4 million babies.
“Every ampul of Anti-D ever made in Australia has James in it,” Barlow said. “He has saved millions of babies. I cry just thinking about it.”
Scientists aren’t sure why Harrison’s body naturally produces the rare antibody but think it is related to the blood transfusions he received as a teenager. Harrison never considered stopping, he told the Daily Mail in 2010. “Probably my only talent is that I can be a blood donor,” Harrison remarked in 2015.
Along the way, he picked up the nickname the “Man With the Golden Arm,” along with accolades large and small, from the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1999 to the Guinness World Records in 2003.
Harrison has said by far the most fulfilling part of his unwavering commitment to donate plasma has been the babies he has helped save — including his own grandchildren.
“To say I am proud of James (my dad) is an understatement,” Harrison’s daughter, Tracey Mellowship, wrote on Facebook, noting she had needed an Anti-D injection in 1992, after the birth of her first son. “Thanks to dad I then gave birth to another healthy boy in 1995. … Thank you dad for giving me the chance to have two healthy children — your grandchildren. XXX”
Harrison recently made his final trip to the blood donation center. At 81, he had already passed the age limit allowed for donors, and the blood service had decided Harrison should stop donating to protect his health, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Blood service officials said their hope is that more blood donors will step forward; perhaps there will be another James Harrison among them.
Harrison is eager for his legacy of 1,173 donations to be surpassed. “I hope it’s a record that somebody breaks, because it will mean they are dedicated to the cause,” he said.