The History of Blood Drives

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In 1940, after more than 100 years of research, blood transfusions finally became a widely-accepted medical treatment in the U.S. Almost immediately, the Red Cross began instituting blood drives across the U.S. and U.K. to support troops in World War II; the donation process was advertised as patriotic and accessible to help the war effort. These drives quickly came to high school and university campuses because students are less likely to have illnesses that could make them ineligible to donate. Today, however, students contribute roughly 20% of blood donations.

Despite the altruistic efforts of blood drives, discrimination quickly tainted donation efforts. In 1942, the Red Cross decided to factor race into the blood transfusion process. Many potential Black donors were turned away, including Sylvia Tucker, who tried to donate blood after the attack on Pearl Harbor and was told “orders from the national offices barred Negro blood.”

The discrimination against Black individuals triggered a national boycott of the Red Cross amidst the civil rights movement. It is important to remember and honor the contributions of Black people to medical advancements despite a history of medical oppression and exploitation. Despite the blatant racist discrimination, the Red Cross only reflected upon their actions in 2023, over 80 years later.

During the HIV/AIDS epidemic, blood drives discriminated against homosexual men, perpetuating fear and hate towards HIV-positive people, as well as gay men in general. In the 1980s and ‘90s, HIV was a public health crisis, infecting over 1.2 million Americans and killing 450,000. However, the federal government refused to recognize it as a public health crisis until they realized that people outside marginalized communities could be infected.

Due to the stigma produced by homophobic rhetoric, blood drives instituted a mandatory period of celibacy, and sometimes an all-out ban, for gay men to donate blood. These regulations were not fully lifted until last year, when the Red Cross rescinded its 3-month celibate policy for gay men, opting for a screening process that all aspiring donors undergo. 

The new screening process is not only more inclusive, increasing the number of eligible donors, but safer, subjecting everyone to a questionnaire asking questions such as, “Have you engaged in sexual activity with a new partner in the last three months?” and “Have you taken any medication for HIV?” Both the medical and LGBTQ+ communities have praised these new policies for diverting away from the narrative that only specific populations can contract HIV. 

As blood drives adapt to become more inclusive, it is vital to remember and honor the history that brought us to this point. Leaders such as those who started the “Act Up for AIDS” movement in the 80s and Civil Rights figures such as Sylvia Tucker continue to pave the way for a future of more equitable medical practices and policies.

Niklas is a sophomore at M-A. This is his first year in journalism. He hopes to write about local events and politics. In his free time, Niklas enjoys exercising and going to Coffeebar!

1 Comment

  1. In the 1980’s, men who had a history of having had sex with men were likely to be HIV positive. Prior to the availability of the HIV test in 1985, their blood donations spread many, many HIV infections. Infected patients lived about 18 months.

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