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The Rhesus Controversy

The Rhesus Controversy

(p.83) Four The Rhesus Controversy
Blood Relations
Jenny Bangham
University of Chicago Press

Nomenclatures offer a unique vantage point from which to view the flourishing mid-century relationship between blood transfusion and genetics. The Rh (Rhesus) blood groups were first defined in 1941 using blood samples extracted from Rhesus monkeys. Rh groups rapidly become the topic of intense clinical and research interest when they were shown to be responsible for a condition called “Erythroblastosis fetalis,” a severe and often fatal form of anemia suffered by some newborn babies. Galton Serum Unit scientists became intensely interested in the genetics of the Rh groups, and engaged in a public controversy with US-based serologist Alexander Wiener about blood group nomenclatures, which would consume researchers, doctors, and transfusion specialists for over a decade. The letters, articles, and archival materials generated by this episode reveals the difficult work of aligning scientists with medical workers, patients, donation customs and bureaucracies. The controversy also makes visible some of the varied practical functions of blood-group nomenclatures: they were “paper tools” for organizing serological results and genetic experiments; they functioned as genetic objects and as labels; and they had to be articulated using many methods: handwriting, typewriters, the printing press, and speech. Not all nomenclatures could function in all contexts.

Keywords:   Rh blood groups, nomenclatures, Rhesus monkeys, transfusion, controversy, paper tools, Erythroblastosis fetalis, Alexander Wiener, handwriting, labels

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