At the age of 14, James Harrison needed to have one of his lungs removed. He was able to survive the surgery thanks to a large amount of donor blood from strangers.
After he recovered, Harrison wanted to pay it forward and give blood to others in need, but Australian law prohibited him from doing so until he was 18. He vowed that when he was old enough, he would become a blood donor.
When Harrison turned 18, he fulfilled his promise. He didn’t just donate once, however; he gave blood every few weeks for the next six decades.
First Donor in the Anti-D Program
Early in his donor career, researchers discovered that Harrison’s blood contained a large amount of a rare antibody that could treat hemolytic disease of the newborn, or HDN. HDN is caused by Rh (D) incompatibility, a situation in which a woman whose blood does not have the Rh factor (D) protein becomes pregnant with a baby who is Rh-positive. In some pregnancies with Rh incompatibility, the mother’s immune system recognizes the fetus as a foreign object and attacks it.
The researchers asked if Harrison would consider becoming the first donor in what is now known as the Anti-D program. Harrison agreed immediately, and began donating plasma instead of whole blood. His plasma was turned into an injection, called Anti-D immunoglobulin, that could be given to expectant mothers whose pregnancies involve Rh incompatibility (17% of Australian mothers). Essentially, it prevented babies from developing HDN and dying or being born with brain damage.
Currently, scientists are working on a synthetic version of the antibody Harrison can produce naturally. But progress has been slow, and they aren’t even sure why Harrison’s blood contains this antibody – though they suspect it has something to do with the blood he received as a 14 year old. Thanks to his mysterious ability to produce this antibody, he’s been dubbed the ‘Man with the golden arm.’
Harrison’s Retirement: 1,173 Donations
At the age of 81, Harrison has finally retired from giving blood – not of his own choice so much as because he is legally over the age limit, and The Red Cross does not want to endanger his health.
During his last trip to the blood donation center, several parents came to the hospital to thank him, showing just a few of the babies he had helped save. It was his 1,173rd donation. Harrison has a Guinness World Record for most prolific blood donor, but told The Red Cross, “I hope it’s a record that somebody breaks.”
Officials estimate that Harrison’s blood has been used to protect over 2.4 million babies from HDN, and saved many, many lives. He’s met a lot of these children, but is particularly close to two of them: his own grandchildren were part of the Anti-D program.
Harrison responds to praise with humor, telling The New York Times to “Blame me for the increase in population.”
Other Recent Blog Posts
The Washington Post – For six decades, ‘the man with the golden arm’ donated blood — and saved 2.4 million babies
The New York Times – ‘Man With the Golden Arm’ Saved Millions of Australian Babies With His Blood
The Red Cross – James Harrison – Pioneer of Australia’s Anti-D Program