James Harrison is just an average guy from Australia. Between his daughter, grandchildren, stamp collecting and going for walks he has lots to keep him busy. His other hobby is donating blood. Nearly every week for over 60 years he has made a donation.
Yet they don’t call him “The Man with the Golden Arm” just for the frequency of his donations, which in and of themselves would be wonderful. Having received a critical blood transfusion as a child, he always vowed he would repay the favor.
Yet he’s repaid the favor about two million times over thanks to a discovery made shortly after he started donating his blood.
“In Australia, up until about 1967, there were literally thousands of babies dying each year, doctors didn’t know why, and it was awful,” said Jemma Falkenmire, of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service. “Women were having numerous miscarriages and babies were being born with brain damage.”
All that death was the result of rhesus disease, a somewhat common condition where a pregnant woman’s blood starts attacking her unborn baby’s blood cells. It results in brain damage and usually death for the unborn child.
Harrison’s blood donations were flagged by inquiring doctors, who discovered he had an unusual antibody for the disease in his blood. After being contacted by doctors in the 1960s he agreed to work with them to develop an antibody injection called Anti-D. The drug basically cures both mother and child of rhesus disease.
“Australia was one of the first countries to discover a blood donor with this antibody, so it was quite revolutionary at the time,” said Falkenmire.
“Every bag of blood is precious, but James’ blood is particularly extraordinary,” says Falkenmire. “His blood is actually used to make a life-saving medication, given to moms whose blood is at risk of attacking their unborn babies. Every batch of Anti-D that has ever been made in Australia has come from James’ blood. And more than 17% of women in Australia are at risk, so James has helped save a lot of lives.”
Doctors still can’t pinpoint exactly why Harrison has the rare antibody in his blood, though they suspect he developed it as a result of his childhood transfusion. He’s one of about 50 in Australia who have the magical blood, according to the Australian Red Cross.
“I think James is irreplaceable for us,” says Falkenmire.
“I don’t think anyone will be able to do what he’s done, but certainly we do need people to step into his shoes,” she added. “He will have to retire in the next couple years, and I guess for us the hope is there will be people who will donate, who will also … have this antibody and become life savers in the same way he has, and all we can do is hope there will be people out there generous enough to do it, and selflessly in the way he’s done.”
Harrison is considered an Australian hero, winning numerous awards for his work. He’s now donated his plasma more than 1,000 times, but is humble about his service, seeing at his duty to fellow countrymen.
Harrison’s donations are estimated to have saved over two million babies from certain death. Though that probably means he repaid the favor, he has no intention of stopping now. He’s just happy to help.