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Health and Medicine

Walking Blood Banks: Why US Children Were Tattooed With Their Blood Type In The 1950s

author

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockApr 21 2022, 15:42 UTC
Person gets tattooed

Kids in the 50s were far cooler than you. Image credit: Spaskov/Shutterstock.com

Tattooing children and babies isn't something you'd expect of the straight-laced 1950s. It's hard to picture a '50s dad crying with pride at little Jimmy's first sleeve. 

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However, many babies and children were tattooed across Utah and Indiana for years – not in a quest to be "rad" but in response to fears of nuclear war and the resulting rads.

With the USA's war against Korea, blood collected from volunteers was largely being sent overseas, leaving a shortage back home. On top of this, the tensions of the Cold War were peaking, and nuclear strikes didn't seem out of the realms of possibility. Should this happen, an awful lot of blood would be needed for transfusions, and existing supplies could be rendered unusable by radiation.

The solution parts of the US came up with was to tattoo children with their blood type, so that they could either quickly receive the correct blood type or act as a "walking blood bank". In an emergency, people would know what type of blood they could take from you just by looking at your tattoo, and then use you for an on-the-spot transfusion.

The idea was pushed by Dr Theodore Curphey of the New York State Medical Society in 1950, but was rejected on the grounds of cost, the probable use of universal donor blood in such situations being sufficient, and the error rate for detecting blood type being about 10 percent, historians Elizabeth K. Wolf and Anne E. Laumann write. Imagine having to explain to every doctor that your blood type tattoo was wrong.

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However, it wasn't long before the Chicago Medical Civil Defense Committee approved the typing and tattooing of all residents. They had been convinced by their leader Andrew C. Ivy, a Chicago doctor, who had likely seen that members of the Waffen-SS had tattoos of their blood types on their chests or upper arms during his role as an American Medical Association consultant at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal.

Though it was never carried out in Chicago, they decided on the location as the chest, because arms and legs could be blown off by explosions.

Lake County, Indiana, meanwhile, pressed ahead with tattooing residents in 1951. Many thousands were typed and tattooed before they decided to extend the program to schoolchildren. It was tried in Utah too, though faced opposition on religious grounds by the Mormon population, as tattoos are forbidden in the bible. However, influential Mormon theologian Bruce R. McConkie went on to say that tattoos were permissible in the "placing of a blood type or an identification number in an obscure place.’’

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Nevertheless, at Beaver County Hospital in Milford, Utah, the record for "coolest baby" was set when someone received their tattoo just two hours after birth.

Though there are still people out there with their blood types tattooed onto them, you'll notice – if you're the kind of person that investigates people's blood types for future emergencies – the majority of people are unlabelled in the USA today. The practice was made defunct quite quickly by donor lists, the end of the Korean war, and the fact that doctors preferred to test blood type at the time of transfusion, rather than rely on a tattoo.


Health and Medicine
  • blood,

  • history,

  • tattoos,

  • science and society

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