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January 30, 2024 9 mins

This bloody episode is guaranteed to leave you thankful for the sacrifice of others—in more ways than one.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Manke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild. Our world is full of
the unexplainable, and if history is an open book, all
of these amazing tales right there on display, just waiting
for us to explore. Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities.

In Greek mythology, the fall of Icarus represents the dangers
of overconfidence, also known as hubris. As the legend goes,
Icarus and his father were imprisoned on the island of Crete.
In an attempt to escape, they built two sets of
wax wings, which would allow them to fly off the
island towards freedom. At first, their journey was going smoothly,
but Icarus got cocky. He rose higher and higher into

the sky, flying so close to the sun that his
wings melted. He fell into the ocean and drowned, a
victim of his own hubris. The lesson is clear, overconfidence
can lead to disaster. Unfortunately, it seems that Alexander Bogdanov,
sometimes called the Icarus of hematology, did not get the memo.
Alexander was born in Russia in eighteen seventy three. He

was prolific at well, almost everything. Actually, he was an
ardent socialist who rose through Russia's political ranks. He was
a science fiction writer who penned tales about utopian societies.
He was a poet, a philosopher, and a teacher. As
if all of that wasn't enough, he was also a physician.
During World War One, Alexander served as a doctor in

the Russian Army. Much of his job involved giving blood
transfusions to wounded soldiers. Now, it's important to point out
that at this point in history, hematology or the science
of blood, was fairly new. Scientists had just recently figured
out about blood types. You've probably heard of these before,
But to put a simple every human's blood falls into
certain categories. We label these with letters AB and O

and either a positive or a negative sign. Knowing a
person's blood type is integral to performing a safe and
effective transfusion. Alexander got a lot of practice doing transfusions
during World War One. When he returned home after the war,
he continued studying hematology, and he came up with some
ideas that were a bit well out there. You see,

Alexander believe that blood transfusions might be the key to immortality,
or at least they might be able to reverse aging.
This was a particular interest to Alexander because in the
nineteen twenties he was around fifty years old. He was
going through all the normal things that fifty year olds do.
His hair was thinning, his vision was getting worse, and
he didn't quite feel as spry and energetic as he

did in decades past. He wanted to get back some
of his youthful spirit, and so he figured why not
do an experiment on himself. He managed to get eleven
of his younger students to voluntarily donate blood to him.
Then he transfused these donations into his own body, essentially
trying to replace his quote unquote older blood with newer blood.
And just to be clear, nobody had ever really done

this before. Alexander was taking a huge risk assuming that
transfusing pints upon pints of blood wouldn't have any adverse effects,
and at first it didn't. Alexander actually thought that his
weird experiment was working. He reported that his hair was
coming back and thicker, his eyesight seemed to be improving,
and he felt happier and more energetic than he had

in years now. Clearly Alexander was not considering the placebo effect.
These supposed changes weren't quantifiable, they were just self reported. Nevertheless,
he was totally convinced, and so were many of his
friends and students. They told him the blood transfusions made
him look ten years younger. So Alexander kept up with

this vampiric routine, filling his veins with the blood of
younger men. You might say that he was wearing wax
wings and flying dangerously close to the sun. In April
of nineteen twenty eight, Alexander's hubris became his downfall. He
obtained a blood sample from a student and transfused it
into his own body. Little did he know that student

had malaria. Alexander had accidentally infected himself with one of
the most dangerous diseases in the world. The student who
gave the blood sample survived, but Alexander did not. He
passed away that same month, going down in history as
the Icarus of hematology. It was a tragic ending for
a truly impressive man, but at least he taught us

all a lesson. Aging is inevitable, so you might as
well embrace that bald spot every superhero has an origin

story right. Spider Man got his powers when he was
bitten by a radioactive arachnid. The Hulk's transformation was triggered
by gamma rays, and the Flash gained super speed after
being struck by lightning. When it comes to strange beginnings, though,
James Harrison is different, that's because he's not a storybook character.
He's a real man who's credited with saving over two

point four million lives, and he got his superpower when
he was just fourteen years old. At the time, it
was nineteen fifty one and James had just fallen ill
with a severe respiratory condition. He was so sick that
his parents rushed him to the hospital, where he underwent
major chest surgery. He had to have one of his
lungs completely removed to make it through the operation, James

received multiple blood transfusions, totally about two gallons. After three
months of recovery, James was okay, but he never forgot
his near death experience. He knew that without those blood
transfusions he wouldn't have survived, and he wanted to pay
it forward. As soon as he turned eighteen, he approached
the Australian Red Cross Blood Service and asked to make

a donation. This was a big deal for James. Even
after the surgery that he'd been through, he was scared
of needles. He looked the other direction as the nurse
stuck the sharp tip into his vein. He kept his
eyes averted until a full pint of his blood had
dripped into the donation bag and the nurse replaced the
needle with a band aid. Shortly after, the Australian Red

Cross Blood Service tested James's blood. This was standard procedure
to make sure that the donation was safe to be
given to a patient. But when they looked at James's blood,
they realized something incredible. It was full of rare antibodies
known as reesus d immune globulin or anti D. Okay,
this is where it gets a little complicated, so just
stick with me here. You know how, when we talk

about blood types, we say that someone is positive or negative.
What we're really saying is that someone's blood either does
or does not contain a protein called reesus. Our blood
type is determined before we're even born. Now, when a
person with Reese's negative blood is pregnant, the fetus might
have the same blood type. In that case, everything is fine. However,

sometimes the fetus can develop reesu's positive blood. This is
called reesis incompatibility. When it happens, the pregnant person's body
can have an immune reaction that creates the antibodies known
as anti D. These targets and attack the fetus's blood cells,
which can lead to birth effects or even miscarriage. For
most of human history, doctors didn't have any way to

treat reesus incompatibility. Tens of thousands of babies died from
the disorder every year, and then in the early nineteen sixties,
researchers learned that anti D can be used to create
a vaccine. It's kind of like how the flu shot works.
Scientists can take the antibody, alter it slightly and then
inject it into the pregnant person's body, and then this

stops the blood cells from attacking their babies. It's a
great solution. The problem is the only way to get
anti D is through blood donors and it's incredibly rare,
and that's where James Harrison comes in. James is one
of an estimated fifty people in Australia whose blood contains
anti D, and he has it in remarkable levels, like

his body is just overflowing with the stuff. It's believed
that during his lung surgery, James received a transfusion of
blood that was incompatible with his own, leading his body
to start producing anti d in record amounts. It's like
a superhero origin story. A medical mistake gave a man
life saving powers. Beginning at eighteen years old, James donated

blood or plasma once a week. He sat down and
turned his eyes away from the needle one one hundred
and seventy three times. He became known as the Man
with a Golden Arm. James retired from giving blood in
twenty eighteen, at eighty one years old. Doctors estimate that
over the course of his sixty three year career, he
saved the lives of at least two point four million children.

And if that isn't heroic, I don't know what is.
I hope you've enjoyed today's Guided to you were of
the Cabinet of Curiosities. Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts,
or learn more about the show by visiting Curiosities podcast
dot com. The show was created by me Aaron Mankey

in partnership with How Stuff Works. I make another award
winning show called Lore, which is a podcast, book series,
and television show and you can learn all about it
over at the Worldoflore dot com. And until next time,
stay curious.

Aaron Mahnke's Cabinet of Curiosities News

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