From Substance to Symbol: The Epic Story of Blood

This year, the American Society of Hematology’s flagship publication, Blood, celebrates its 70th anniversary. At the 2015 ASH Annual Meeting, attendees were invited to attend “The Epic Story of Blood” – a birthday party of sorts where Blood Editor-in-Chief Bob Löwenberg, MD, PhD, was joined by Marc Kahn, MD, of Tulane University, and journalist Lawrence Hill to discuss not only blood (and Blood) and the human understanding of it, but also the physical and metaphorical meaning of blood in our culture.

Dr. Kahn served as the lead medical consultant to the award-winning PBS series Red Gold: The Epic Story of Blood, and Mr. Hill is the author of Blood: The Stuff of Life, which explored the physical and metaphorical meaning of blood and its influence on religious expression, literature, art, and thought across human history.

Celebrating 70 Years of Blood

In his opening remarks, Dr. Löwenberg reviewed the history of the Journal: “Blood was founded in 1946, right after World War II, when our field was beginning to organize itself and the discipline was beginning to be formed. Two visionary people, William Dameshek and Henry Stratton, joined efforts and decided to launch a hematology journal. Since then, the Journal has grown to become one of the important partners in hematologists’ day-to-day life.”

New discoveries and deeper understandings of the function and formation of blood cells, the mechanism of coagulation, and the ways in which blood components are altered in disease have unfolded in the pages of Blood for the past seven decades. “Blood the journal behaves like blood in the body: It goes anywhere it is needed,” Dr. Löwenberg said. “Breakthroughs in our understanding of the biology and advances related to clinical care in hematology have been reported through the pages of Blood. Blood has a global role and position and reaches out to scientists and clinicians in virtually any corner of our planet.”

Blood has also reflected the changes in cultural science, he added. “Looking back at the earliest articles to now, you can see a change from individual, autonomous research to more mechanistic, ‘protocolized’ approaches.”

The future of the Journal is clear in the eyes of Dr. Löwenberg: “The Journal has truly been a messenger of all of the significant developments in our field. We can look at Blood as a stable and faithful partner for successive generations of hematologists.”

Blood Through the Ages

Dr. Kahn took the audience on a journey through the history of blood – from early cave paintings to its appearances in religious texts, to Jan Swammerdam’s description of red blood cells in 1658 and the first ASH meeting in 1958. “Since the very beginning of mankind, blood has been recognized as that which gives life,” he said. “Blood defines who we are, our social relations, our ranking, and heritage.”

While Drs. Kahn and Löwenberg traced the history of blood in medicine, Mr. Hill traced the importance of blood in our society and history – as substance and symbol.

“One of my lifelong obsessions has been blood and identity,” Mr. Hill began. “How are we tied? What rules govern us? How does blood unite us, and how does it divide us?”

Offering examples of blood’s pervasiveness throughout culture and history, Mr. Hill reminded the audience of how powerfully blood looms in the public consciousness. No other bodily substance, he said, “captures our thoughts and provides use with metaphors to understand our lives, or inspires as much fear.” Think of how we use blood in our language, he offered. Phrases like shed blood for, bleeding heart, cold-blooded, and “If ye prick us, do we not bleed?”

Blood has transcended its role as a mere function of our health and vitality – it has spilled into every corner of our lives. “Blood keeps you alive, sure, but it can also betray you. It has the potential to reveal your most hidden secrets,” Mr. Hill noted. “How’s your cholesterol? Are you the father of that child? Did you cheat in that Olympic snowboarding competition?”

Humans have also exploited notions about the meaning of blood to divide us. As recently as World War II, African-Americans were banned from donating blood, which was thought to be “impure,” even as the military’s blood supply dwindled. In response to protests, the blood donation policy was reviewed, and, in line with the “separate but equal” doctrine, blood donated from African-Americans was to be processed and dispensed separately – a policy that stayed in place throughout the war.

In the end though, blood’s capacity to unite us overrides the ability to divide us. “We know that people have different blood types, but the fundamental sameness of our blood – its color, its texture and functions – is supposed to link us as human beings,” Mr. Hill said. “Blood fills our imaginations just as fully as it fills our veins. Thus it has always been and will always be.”