For the majority of humanity, the outbreak of World War I was a catastrophe on an unprecedented scale. But for Ludwik Hirszfeld, it turned out to be a stroke of good fortune.
Together with his wife, Hanna, the German doctor ran a bacteriology lab in Thessaloniki, Greece, where he had nearly unlimited access to human test subjects -- the French, British, Italian, Russian and Serbian soldiers who made up the multinational Army of the Orient, stationed in this port city in northern Greece and hemmed in by German troops during the so-called Balkans Campaign of the war.
In the interest of conducting one of the largest field studies in medical history up to that point, Hirszfeld approached these languid POWs with a needle and a request to draw their blood. The doctor knew just how to approach each of the different nationalities to sweeten the deal and get a soldier to participate in his large-scale experiment.
"With the English, it was enough simply to comment that this was being done for scientific purposes," Hirszfeld recalled in his memoirs. For his "French friends," on the other hand, the resourceful doctor offered tips on whom they could "sin with impunity" with based on their blood type. He also found it easy to convince the Senegalese soldiers who were there as colonial troops in the French army. "We told them the test might be connected with possible time on leave," Hirszfeld wrote. "And black hands stretched toward us in no time at all."
In the space of just a few months, Hirszfeld enthused, it had been possible to achieve what would otherwise have taken years -- the identification of the blood types of around 8,000 soldiers from a wide range of countries. Once the doctor, long based in the western German city of Heidelberg, had analyzed his data, he believed he had made a groundbreaking discovery: "Blood group A was associated mainly with the white, European 'race,' while blood group B was attributed to the dark-skinned 'races,'" writes Swiss historian Myriam Spörri in a recently published book on the cultural history of blood-group research.
Hirszfeld and his colleague Emil von Dungern had developed the blood type groupings A, B, AB and O, now in wide use internationally, in 1910. Before them, in 1901, it was Karl Landsteiner who first discovered that red blood cells possess a variety of antigens.
Focused on 'Blood Purity'
The Nazis forced Hirszfeld, a Jew, into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941, although he survived. The blood researcher has generally been free of any suspicion that racist motivations guided his work. Spörri, though, reaches a different conclusion.
The fields of research Hirszfeld founded were "eugenically charged" from the start, the Swiss historian concludes. Even during his internment, Spörri writes, Hirszfeld gave lectures in which he stated "that blood group distributions among Jews and the 'host peoples' they lived among were nearly identical."
The researcher, originally from Warsaw, was not alone in this choice of words, which seems so appalling from a modern-day perspective. Berlin-based serologist Fritz Schiff, for example, insisted in the academic journal Jüdische Familienforschung (Jewish Genealogical Research) that differences in the blood types of various Jewish groups could be seen "as an 'convergence' to become more like the respective 'host people.'"
Ludwik and Hanna Hirszfeld had begun spreading dubious theories in the 1920s. And, as Spörri writes: "The idea of 'pure blood' first expressed by the Hirszfelds held on tenaciously and was never challenged, despite new findings."
Nearly all researchers of the period shared this obsessive preoccupation with the idea of blood purity. Years before the Nazis seized power, both Jewish and non-Jewish blood-group researchers were searching for racial characteristics and signs of racial mixing in the blood, assuming the existence of such things as a matter of course.
In her book, Spörri illuminates for the first time a community of academics whose members, by today's standards, seem impossibly mismatched, and whose work has largely faded from public consciousness. On the one hand, there were liberally minded scientists of Jewish ancestry, such as Hirszfeld, Schiff and Landsteiner. On the other side was a more reactionary group who were followers of Hamburg anthropologist Otto Reche, who founded the German Society for Blood Group Research in 1926.
It seems astonishing from a present-day point of view, but these extremely different players in the blood research scene were very often in agreement. In 1929, for example, Landsteiner, who had by this time emigrated to New York, took the time during a visit back to Germany to meet with the obscure race researcher Reche. In a letter to a colleague, the racist scientist who later became an admirer of Hitler, vacillated between mistrust and admiration of Landsteiner: "He is a tall, slim, good-looking man with a proud fencing scar on his left cheek; his racial type is not very apparent he has produced a number of very good ideas."
Hitler, too, had an ardent interest in the subject, although he obtained his information from crude sources. His inspiration for the "Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor," passed in 1935 as one of the Nuremberg Laws, was an unsavory 1917 pulp novel called "The Sin against the Blood."
Early Applications of Blood Type Research
On the whole, though, instead of causing a setback for medical research in Germany, this erroneous belief in the "purity" of blood advanced it to a certain extent. German scientists were leaders in the field when it came to research into hereditary blood characteristics. The first time a blood group report was submitted in court as evidence in a paternity case was in Germany, in 1924.
German forensic scientists in the early 20th century also achieved the great feat of convicting a serial killer on the strength of a blood test. Ludwig Tessnow, a journeyman carpenter, was suspected of having murdered four children. His sullied clothing was taken as evidence of his guilt.
Tessnow, hard-pressed and unaware of the possibilities available to modern medicine, claimed the spots in question were simply from wood stain. But experts were able to identify the traces as human blood using a blood precipitation test, leading to Tessnow's execution in 1904.
At the same time, however, German doctors viewed blood transfusion as an "omen of danger," fearing it would defile pure blood, even though the life-saving procedure had been successfully used in British and American hospitals since the end of World War I.
For most doctors, mixing the blood of a German with that of a Jewish citizen was also unthinkable. Transfusions between men and women were also suspect, out of concerns that the blood might impart female characteristics to a male recipient.