Though his career was brief, James Blundell was an innovator and pioneer
and was distinguished as one of the first physicians to practice blood
transfusion in humans. His career as a physiologist, obstetrician, teacher and
physician led to great achievements in multiple areas of medicine.
Among those achievements was the ability to transfuse whole blood from
human to human a feat he first experimented with in dogs. He also made
advancements in abdominal surgery as well as in surgical strategies for
obstetrics and gynecology, including the division of fallopian tubes during
caesarean operations to ensure sterility and the removal of the ovaries to
Blundell was born in London on Dec. 27, 1790. Aside from Thomas
Pettigrews Medical Portrait Gallery a book containing
biographical memoirs of sciences major influences little of
Blundells early life is known.
He received a classical education under the Rev. Thomas Thomason and
began his medical education at the United Southwark Hospitals. There Blundell
studied anatomy and surgery under Sir Astley Cooper, known for his achievements
in vascular surgery. Blundell also studied midwifery and physiology under his
uncle, Dr. John Haighton, who had an enormous influence on his medical career.
Source: National Library of
The young physician continued his studies at The University of
Edinburgh, Scotland where he was deeply engaged in botany and jurisprudence,
which at the time had been paid little attention in London. In 1813, after
presenting a thesis in Latin that proved the senses for music and hearing were
dependent yet distinct, Blundell graduated with his medical degree.
After graduation, Blundell returned to London where he focused solely on
midwifery and physiology. He became a lecturer at the united schools of St.
Thomas and Guys Hospital where he taught jointly with his uncle
Haighton on physiology. The following year, 1817, he joined his uncle as a
lecturer on midwifery and became the sole lecturer on the two topics after his
uncles death in 1823. Blundell was named a licentiate of the Royal
College of Physicians in 1818 and a fellow in 1838.
In 1818, Blundell published Experiments on the Transfusion of
Blood by the Syringe in Medico-Chirurgical Transactions. The
important paper discussed his experiences with whole blood transfusion
both in dogs and humans using a syringe. He addressed the benefits of
rapid execution to prevent coagulation, the importance of avoiding air intake
in the veins and the incompatibility of heterologous donors.
Shortly after, Blundell introduced two instruments for the purpose of
transfusion: the impellor and the gravitator. The impellor was a complex
invention consisting of a cup, tube and syringe (see figure). When using the
gravitator, blood was injected into the patient via a tube suspended from a
vessel held high above the patient. Information on both apparatuses was
published in The Lancet in 1829.
Postpartum hemorrhage, extreme malnutrition, puerperal fever, cancer of
the pylorus, ruptured uterus and hydrophobia were all indications for
transfusion at the time.
Perpendicular section of the Impellor. A.C.B. the inner cup. A.D.B. The
outer cup full of water. D.E. The vice. a.b. A line on the inner cup
above which the blood should no be suffered to rise. c.d. The upper
valve, armed with two or three folds of soft alum leather. e.f. The
undervalve, idem. g.h.i.k. The syringe. l. The plug. B. A mark on
the piston-rod indicating the elevation to which the plug, l, had been
raised. The space covered with dots represents that portion of the instrument
which is filled with blood. The space covered with line represents that portion
of the instrument which is full of water. m.n. The flexible tube.
n.o. The venous tubule. When the piston of the syringe is raised, the
blood is drawn from the cup. A.C.B. down pipe C. through the upper value
c.d. into the syringe; and the reflux from that part of the instrument
which lies below the under valve e.f. is prevented by the closure of the
valve. When the piston is depressed, the blood is expelled through the valve
e.f. along the pipes m.n.o.; and the reflux into the cup. A.C.B.
is prevented by the closure of the valve c.d. Except the plug joint at
n. all the joints at which air might enter and mix with the blood are
covered with water, by which means the instrument is rendered air-secure. With
a view of avoiding complexity, the springs which raise the valves are not
Figure 2: The valve with the springs mounted.
Figure 3: Spring forceps.
Figure 4: The curve of the wire
forming the spring which raises the valves.
Physiological and Pathological, 1824
Aside from his invaluable work with blood transfusions, Blundells
discoveries left quite an impression on the field of surgery. By studying the
peritoneum of animals, he uncovered the possibility of abdominal surgery, which
profoundly advanced the fields of obstetrics and gynecology.
In 1823 and 1824, the Medical and Chirurgical Society published three of
Blundells articles in Transaction. The first article argued
the feasibility of abdominal surgery, including correcting intraperitoneal
rupture of the bladder and relieving intestinal intussusceptions by creating a
small incision in the abdomen and passing the folds of the small bowel through
the fingers. Additionally, Blundell argued the practicability of dividing the
fallopian tubes during caesarean sections to ensure sterility and using double
oophorectomy to alleviate severe dysmenorrhea.
Despite Blundells protest, his lectures on midwifery were
published verbatim in The Lancet in 1827, 1828 and 1829. The
lectures were taken in shorthand by a writer who served the proprietor and
editor of the journal, Thomas Wakley. In 1832, the lectures were published in a
volume titled Lectures in Midwifery and the Diseases of Women and
Children as Delivered at Guys Hospital. A larger volume was
published two years later titled The Principles and Practices of
Obstetricy as at Present Taught by Dr. James Blundell. The books, based
mostly on his lectures, were approved by Blundell and his recommendations for
revisions and rearranging were executed.
Both his practices and teachings in obstetrics offered much insight into
midwifery. He advised strongly against unnecessary interference and
differentiated between placenta previa and accidental hemorrhage. He
recommended the use of strong caution and late interference only in breech
presentation, giving precise instruction on the delivery of the head.
Blundell was cautious in his use of forceps but preferred them to be
straight, whether long or short. He treated eclampsia with venesection, emetics
and purgatives. If his methods failed, he recommended interference by means of
rupturing the membranes; though he believed it to be useful, he urged against
it in cases of malpresentation and contracted pelvis.
In 1836, Blundell had an irreconcilable dispute with the administration
at Guys Hospital and retired. Two years later he became a fellow of the
Royal College of Physicians.
Often referred to as eccentric, in his later years Blundell had both
interesting and unusual sleeping patterns. He rose midday and saw patients in
his home in the afternoon hours. After dining he began a round of house calls
as late as 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. He carried many books with him, which he read
between calls by the interior light affixed to his carriage.
Blundell retired in 1847 and moved to a large house in Piccadilly,
London, where he lived in relative anonymity. He died on Jan. 15, 1878.
by Stacey L. Adams
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