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Blood Relations

Transfusion and the Making of Human Genetics

Blood Relations

Transfusion and the Making of Human Genetics

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

Blood is messy, dangerous, and charged with meaning. By following it as it circulates through people and institutions, Jenny Bangham explores the intimate connections between the early infrastructures of blood transfusion and the development of human genetics. Focusing on mid-twentieth-century Britain, Blood Relations connects histories of eugenics to the local politics of giving blood, showing how the exchange of blood carved out networks that made human populations into objects of medical surveillance and scientific research. Bangham reveals how biology was transformed by two world wars, how scientists have worked to define racial categories, and how the practices and rhetoric of public health made genetics into a human science. Today, genetics is a powerful authority on human health and identity, and Blood Relations helps us understand how this authority was achieved.

328 pages | 32 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2020

History: History of Technology

History of Science


"Bangham expertly traces the connections between the search for new and rare blood groups, the mapping of ostensibly race-neutral genetic differences in populations across the world, and the crucial role of bureaucratic networks with detailed information about donors and blood groups. She thus sheds new light on the twentieth-century history of genetics... [An] original and well-written study."

Technology and Culture

"A bang‐up book. . . . The history of blood transfusion is a major driver of our understanding of human genetics. I wish that the late Louis K. Diamond and Fred H. Allen, two of the foremost blood group geneticists in the United States whom I knew well, were still with us to read and enjoy this fine survey." 

FASEB Journal

"Along with the analysis of the material and institutional entanglement between blood transfusion and human genetics, Bangham's book sheds light on how blood group research played a fundamental role in transforming eugenics and race science. . . . Elegantly written, beautifully illustrated, and powerfully drawing from the history of biomedicine and the history of technology as well as social and cultural history, Bangham's book already represents a cornerstone in the history of human genetics."


"Exploring the intersecting histories of haematology, genetics, and views on race, Jenny Bangham brilliantly unravels the science and politics of blood. . . . A fascinating read."

Lancet Haematology

"Bangham's excellent Blood Relations [has] an urgency during the ongoing response to COVID-19 that the author could hardly have anticipated. The book presents a new history of human genetics, one that shows how the exigencies of the World War II in Britain knit an infrastructure for emergency blood transfusion together with a research apparatus for the study of human diversity seeking to redeem its eugenic ambitions through more 'objective' data. . . . Bangham convincingly tells a history of genetics inextricable from the rise of modern bureaucracy and its racial formations. . . . The empirical richness of this amply illustrated book is noteworthy. Attention to popular science publications as well as rote manuals for practitioners complements a deft archival reconstruction of correspondence networks at the heart of the enterprise. Bangham's focus on the material dimensions of science shines. . . . Blood Relations is a valuable contribution to the growing literature on data practices in the human sciences, embodying all of its historiographical virtues: attention to information labour, the politics of extraction, and anxieties over format obsolescence, to name a few." 

Social History of Medicine

"It is fascinating to learn how blood grouping was developed and used to categorize humans, for better or worse. . . . Beyond the technical details of this story, Bangham foregrounds evidence of systemic racism's role at various points in the book, and if the reader is prepared to consider such complexity, then the text can serve as a launching point for penetrating discussion. The book would be a relevant addition to the readings for a college course on the history of science emphasizing the first half of the 20th century. The volume features some black-and-white figures and photographs; the extensive footnotes and references comprise a third of its total pages. All readers interested in biomedical science will find this book fascinating. . . . Highly recommended."


"A sophisticated account of how the history of blood transfusion in Britain inaugurated human genetics research in that country. . . .  Bangham clearly reveals how the rapid development of postwar human genetics was built on the transracial and international blood collection practices in early- and mid-twentieth-century Britain. In showing the mutually constitutive nature of human genetics and blood research, Bangham bridges the study of these two fields which has long been considered independently by medical historians. Scholars will appreciate how Bangham deftly weaves diverse historical phenomena into a coherent narrative that furthers highlights the interconnectedness of laboratory research with scientific outreaches and media networks."

Journal of the History of Biology

Blood Relations is a brilliant and engaging study of the science and the politics of blood. Bangham tracks the story of the practices of blood collection and analysis in Britain after 1900 in ways that vividly illuminate race science, human genetics, nationalism, and war. In her empirically rich account, blood ties together donors, clerks, serologists, geneticists, and anthropologists. The beautifully curated archival images and charts call our attention to the many kinds of labor and laborer involved in modern science. The account of the rise of human genetics is persuasive and novel, situated at the intersections of the history of science, medicine, and modernity. An important and powerful book, Blood Relations is required reading for scholars in the field, but also warmly accessible to any general reader with an interest in the moving human story of how and why blood became a medical, social, and scientific resource.”

M. Susan Lindee, University of Pennsylvania

"Bangham tells a stunningly original story: how the science of human blood groups evolved in Britain, from its uses in the transfusion services in World War II through its transformation by the 1960s into a powerful enabler of human population genetics. She exploits a rich trove of archival sources to detail the system of labeling, description, record-keeping, and analysis devised by the leaders of London's blood research centers: R. A. Fisher, Ruth Sanger, and Arthur Mourant. This is, in all, a great feast of a book."

Daniel J. Kevles, professor emeritus of history, Yale University

"In this masterful study, Bangham sheds new light on the history of human genetics. Looking beyond eugenics, she shows how much human genetics owed to the development of blood transfusion in mid-twentieth century Britain. To tell her riveting story, she brings in a fascinating set of characters including donors, nurses, needle sharpeners, and clerks. Bangham argues convincingly that the state infrastructure put in place on the eve of World War II was essential in producing the collections of blood and data on which depended the rise of the new science."

Bruno J. Strasser, author of Collecting Experiments: Making Big Data Biology

"With technical fluency and historical sensitivity, Bangham, a geneticist–turned science writer–turned historian of science, locates a remarkable set of stories about how the life-saving medical practice of blood transfusion in Britain served as a crucible for the science of human genetics... May this exquisitely thoughtful book contribute to the urgent project of reworking the relations between the sciences and the humanities, and between biomedicine and its constituencies, as they attempt to reckon more meaningfully with the ever-changing challenges of racism."


Table of Contents

Prefatory Note

Introduction: Blood, Paper, and Genetics

1. Transfusion and Race in Interwar Europe

2. Reforming Human Heredity in the 1930s

3. Blood Groups at War

4. The Rhesus Controversy

5. Postwar Blood Grouping 1: The Blood Group Research Unit

6. Valuable Bodies and Rare Blood

7. Postwar Blood Grouping 2: Arthur Mourant’s National and International Networks

8. Organizing and Mapping Global Blood Groups

9. Blood Groups and the Reform of Race Science in the 1950s

10. Decoupling Transfusion and Genetics: Blood in the New Human Biology

Conclusion: Blood and Promise







History of Science Society: Suzanne J. Levinson Prize

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