In 1951, 14-year-old James Harrison from Australia awoke from a major chest surgery. Doctors removed one of his lungs and kept him hospitalized for three months. During this difficult time, Harrison learned that he was alive largely due to a vast quantity of transfused blood he had received. Then and there, he vowed he’d become a donor himself. Former Australian laws required blood donors to be at least 18 years old, so the boy had to wait 4 more years. But Harrison kept his promise. Donating regularly to the Australian Red Cross Blood Service for 60 years, the organization estimates that Harrison saved millions of lives.


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Soon after Harrison became a donor, doctors told the man that his blood might solve a deadly problem. “In Australia, up until about 1967, there were literally thousands of babies dying each year, doctors didn’t know why, and it was awful,” Jemma Falkenmire of the Australian Red Cross Blood Service told CNN. “Women were having numerous miscarriages and babies were being born with brain damage.” We now know that the cause of these terrible things was rhesus disease, a condition where a pregnant woman’s blood starts attacking her own unborn baby’s blood cells.

Rhesus disease occurs when a pregnant woman has rhesus-negative blood (RhD negative) and the baby in her womb has rhesus-positive blood (RhD positive), inherited from the father. If the mother has been sensitized to rhesus-positive blood, usually during a previous pregnancy with an rhesus-positive baby, she may produce antibodies that destroy the baby’s “foreign” blood cells. The doctors discovered that Harrison has a rare antibody in his blood and in the 1960’s they worked together extensively, using it to develop an injection called Anti-D. Anti-D prevents mothers with rhesus-negative blood from developing RhD antibodies during their pregnancy.

Doctors are clueless as to why Harrison has this rare blood type. Their best guess suggests it might have something to do with the transfusions he received when he was 14. The blood service also says that there are no more than 50 people in Australia known to have the antibodies. “Every bag of blood is precious, but James’ blood is particularly extraordinary <…>. Every batch of Anti-D that has ever been made in Australia has come from James’ blood.” Falkenmire said. “And more than 17% of women in Australia are at risk, so James has helped save a lot of lives.” About 2.4 million, to be exact.

Known as “The Man with the Golden Arm,” James Harrison has made 1,173 blood plasma donations – 1,163 from his right arm and 10 from his left. “It becomes quite humbling when they say, ‘oh you’ve done this or you’ve done that or you’re a hero,'” Harrison told CNN. “It’s something I can do. It’s one of my talents, probably my only talent, is that I can be a blood donor.”

“They asked me to be a guinea pig, and I’ve been donating ever since,” the hero told the Sydney Morning Herald. “I’d keep on going if they’d let me.” But Mr Harrison has surpassed the donor age limit and the Blood Service seeks to protect his health. On Friday, Mr Harrison made his final benefaction. He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1999.

When James Harrison was 14,  the doctors removed one of his lungs and kept him hospitalized for three months

Image credits: Australian Red Cross Blood Service

During the difficult time, Harrison learned that he was alive largely due to the transfused blood he had received

To give back, he became a blood donor himself

Image credits: Australian Red Cross Blood Service

During the next 60 years, James Harrison has made 1,173 blood plasma donations – 1,163 from his right arm and 10 from his left

Image credits: 9news

Australian Red Cross Blood Service estimates that Harrison saved 2.4 million lives

Image credits: 9news

Harrison has a rare antibody in his blood and in the 1960s he and health professionals used it to develop an injection called Anti-D

Image credits: 9news

Anti-D is the main answer to a deadly problem called rhesus disease

Image credits: 9news

Rhesus disease occurs when a pregnant woman has rhesus-negative blood (RhD negative) and the baby in her womb has rhesus-positive blood (RhD positive), inherited from its father

Image credits: 9news

If the mother has been sensitized to rhesus-positive blood, she may produce antibodies that destroy the baby’s “foreign” blood cells

Image credits: 9news

For the babies, it can result in brain damage or death

Image credits: 9news

“I’d keep on going if they’d let me” said Mr Harrison. But he has surpassed the donor age limit and the Blood Service seeks to protect his health

Image credits: 9news

James Harrison on his final donation, surrounded by Anti-D babies he saved

Image credits: Steven Siewert

To learn more about “The Man with the Golden Arm,” watch the video below

Mr Harrison was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1999. On Friday, he made his final benefaction