Blood Purity: How a Bizarre Obsession Advanced Science

By Frank Thadeusz

Photo Gallery: 'Eugenically Charged' Science Photos
Corbis

Already years before the Nazis came to power, German scientists were propagating theories about blood purity. Though this obsession led to bizarre and dangerous theories about superiority and personality traits, it also led to medical breakthroughs.

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.

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1. Mr Frank should read memoir of Ludwik Hirszfeld before writing this article.
kandrzejw 06/02/2013
Mr Frank should read memoir of Ludwik Hirszfeld before writing this article. First of all Hirszfeld considered himself a Pole and not a Jew, but Nazis thought otherwise according to their standards and put him with his wife and only daughter into Warsaw Ghetto, from which Poles helped him and his family to escape before its liquidation, unfortunately his daughter died because of after effects of hard conditions in Warsaw Ghetto. During the I World War Hirszfeld according to his memoir was rather engaged in fighting voluntarily plague in the Balcans then researching blood purity theory. Finally one of the main topic of his memoir is about researching blood samples from various geographical areas not to support purity blood theory but to challenge its credibility. Ludwik Hirszfeld was a very dissent person and should be treated with great respect by journalists and scientists. So a journalist writing about him and about a book about his work should in the first place get to know his own account of what he was doing as a scientist and a man.
2. Comment by professors Jacek M. Witkowski, Kazimierz Madaliński, Jan Żeromski from the Committee of Immunology, Polish Academy of Sciences
jawitek666 07/02/2013
The article mixes facts with falses leaving the impression about Professor Ludwik Hirszfeld, one of the founders of modern Polish serology and immunology, being the conscious and willing source of scientific basics for Nazi genetics/ideology. This unjust defamation to the scientist is clearly not true and requires clarification. Hirszfeld was born in Poland (1884) in Polish-assimilated Jewish family and he considered himself a Pole throughout life. This is in straight opposition to Thadeusz’s calling Hirszfeld “the German doctor” and including him among … “German scientists (who) were propagating theories about blood purity”. However, his links with German science were evidently tight, starting from his work with his mentor Emil von Dungern; they discovered together the red blood cells groups. Following his interest in the distribution of the blood groups in different populations, during World War I Hirszfeld and his wife gathered blood samples of willing and consenting soldiers from the multinational Army of Orient (not the POWs as stated in the Thadeusz’s article!), and published the results in the Lancet, 2; 675; 1919. Neither in that nor in any other of Hirszfeld’s publications there was any statement linking the blood groups with qualifiers of personality; also, the term “blood purity” was never used. Abusing blood group research in racist theories indicates ignorance and/or bad intentions and was strongly opposed by Hirszfeld himself (Br J Prev Soc Med. 1963, 17, 166). Thadeusz states at first: “ (Hirszfeld)… has generally been free of any suspicion that racist motivations guided his work”; but next quotes big fragments of Myriam Spórri book: Reines und gemischtes Blut: Zur Kulturgeschichte der Blutgruppenforschung, 1900-1933, presenting the opposite view. The author did not draw the conclusion, which of the two opinions is correct, while Hirszfeld’s attitude to Hitler was extremely negative and well accentuated [‘The story of one life’ by L. Hirszfeld, (English edition issued by the University of Rochester Press already in 2010, available on Amazon) is a must read for anybody interested in his life and discovery in order to attain an unbiased view.]. Mr. Thadeusz does not provide any evidence for his defaming statements: “It was the Hirszfelds, who laid the foundation for this fanaticism with their blood group study”and “Hirszfeld and other blood researchers of the (Nazi) era considered it self-evident that various blood groups were indications of inferior or superior racial characteristics”. Certainly, several German scientists paved the way for such thinking, but Hirszfeld had never expressed such point of view, nor had any intention to stimulate Nazi geneticists; this is the nonobjective, prejudiced idea. We do not suspect that Mr. Thadeusz’s intention was to defame Hirszfeld; rather he wanted to report the ideas of the book by Spörri, but he simply did not have enough knowledge and was not prepared to write such an article for such an influential journal as Der Spiegel.
3. Comment by professors Janusz Boratyński, Marcin Czerwiński, Andrzej Górski, Piotr Kuśnierczyk, Elwira Lisowska and Czesław Radzikowski, Ludwik Hirszfeld Institute of Immunology and Experimental Therapy, Wrocław, POland
czerwins 07/05/2013
The article by Frank Thadeusz offends the memory of Ludwik Hirszfeld by implying racist motivations to his research. The results of the Ludwik and Hanna Hirszfeld study published in The Lancet in 1919 laid the foundations – according to the author – for the development of Nazi theories on „blood purity” and the superiority of the German race. In addition the author states that "Ludwik and Hanna Hirszfeld had begun spreading dubious theories in the 1920s, for which he presents no evidence. Today more than 30 types of bood groups are known and the discovery of each new group raises interest as to its frequency in various populations. In view of this, the fascination of Ludwik Hirszfeld is totally understandable: he was able 100 years ago to test the frequency among different ethnicities of the only ABO blood groups known at the time in a population of several thousand soldiers from different parts of the world who were located in the Balkans during the war. In this landmark study that in fact opened the field of human population genetics he established that the frequency of the groups A, B, AB and O varies among different populations. However neither in the Lancet publication nor later did Hirszfeld ever state that one blood group was „better” than the other, nor did he ever use the expression „blood purity”. On the contrary, many documents, including his autobiography (The Story of One Life) written during the German occupation, do attest of his deeply negative opinion and courageous attitude towards racism and nazism. The author of Der Spiegel article did not mention that the reason for the Hirszfelds’ decision to stay in the Balkans was to fight the epidemics, which in fact they did with much success saving thousands of lives in difficult wartime circumstances. According to the author of Der Spiegel article, one of the proofs of the „guilt” of Hirszfeld was his use of the word „race” when speaking of people. We should remember, however, that this was 100 years ago when the word „race” did not yet have a pejorative conotation. The existence of various populations is a fact and racism is only the conviction that one race is superior to another. A racist attitude cannot be found in any of the publications or statements of Hirszfeld. Ludwik Hirszfeld was an outstanding Polish scientist, the teacher of many adepts of science and he was characterized by a rare kindness towards people regardless of their origins, education or economic status. He also contributed much to the prevention and battle against bacterial infections not only during the First World War but also in the interwar period in Poland. He continued his activities after the Second World War which he survived thanks to his and his family’s escape from the Warsaw Ghetto with the help of relatives and friends. Thus, presenting Ludwik and Hanna Hirszfeld as precursors of racism is based on absolutely false premises.
4. Comment by Dr.D.Belin,Univ. of Geneva, Ms. J. Kielbasinska, biochemist,Dr. A.Kielbasinski, prof. , Warsaw University, Dr.M.Prentki,Univ. of Montréal, Dr.M.Balinska, Dr.J.Bruner, Dr.M.Balinski, Ecole Polytechnique, Dr.W.H.Schneider, Indiana Univ.
dominique.belin 07/22/2013
This article, based on the book Reines und gemischtes blut by Dr. M. Spoerri, is mostly devoted to the work of Ludwik and Hanna Hirszfeld, two doctors who studied human blood groups during World War I. Many statements are entirely wrong and the article is defamatory with regard to the memory of two exceptional scientists. Our letter, prepared by relatives the Hirszfelds, addresses only the most glaring of the article’s false allegations. First, Ludwik Hirszfeld is mentioned as “a German doctor”. Born in Russian-occupied Poland, Hirszfeld – who considered himself Polish – was at the time serving in the Serbian army. While it is true that he studied medicine in Germany, he became a Polish citizen after 1918 when Poland became an independent country. Hanna Hirszfeld is mentioned only as his wife, even though she too was a medical doctor, also serving in the Serbian army, and a scientist in her own right. The use of “races” to describe human populations may shock today. But in the 1920’s the expression was common and did not necessarily have a “racist” connotation. The populations studied by the Hirszfelds are classified as either “races” or “nationalities” in their landmark 1919 Lancet paper that opened the field of human population genetics. The second error is the statement that “Hirszfeld approached these languid POWs with a needle” The implication is that prisoners of war were used without their consent. However, these soldiers were Allied troops and thus not prisoners. Two other populations tested consisted of civilians: Jewish refugees from Monastir and Muslim Macedonians classified as “Turks”. The data on German and Austrian populations were collected before the war either by Hirszfeld and Dungern (Heidelberg) or by Landsteiner (Vienna). There is no evidence whatsoever that racist motivations could have guided the Hirszfeld’s work. Stating that they spread dubious “racist” theories about blood “purity” in the 1920s is an unwarranted defamation. As unacceptable is the statement that the Hirszfelds “laid the foundations for this fanaticism”, “using blood to judge superiority and character” for claims to racial superiority. It is true that the 1919 Lancet article proposed an explanation for the geographic distribution of blood groups involving the appearance of separate human races with distinct blood types, which is completely at odds with today’s knowledge. This hypothesis turned out to be wrong, but was perfectly acceptable in a scientific article. The article on the history of blood group research published in Der Spiegel contains unacceptable attacks on the integrity of two outstanding medical doctors who showed the highest dedication to science and to medicine throughout and between the two world wars. The Memoirs of Ludwik Hirszfeld (The Story of One Life) have been translated into English and published by Drs. M Balinska and WH Schneider. They provide a vivid account of the Hirszfelds’ lives and their role in blood groups research.
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