World War II: Plasma, Penicillin, And Insecticides

February 2018

WITHIN MINUTES of being hit, a wounded soldier in Sicily receives blood plasma from an Army medical corpsman. Some 80 percent of injuries in World War II were caused not by bullets but by bombs or mortar and shell fire, resulting in grave wounds accompanied by shock. Doctors in the First World War had learned that transfusions were useful in treating shock, but they had no system of collecting and transporting sufficient quantities of blood. Between the wars, researchers perfected two new techniques. First they separated plasma, the liquid part of blood, from the red and white blood cells—this made matching blood types unnecessary. Then they dried the plasma, which preserved it and made it easier to transport. When needed, the plasma was mixed with sterile water and injected into the bloodstream to sustain life until surgery could take place.

To meet the tremendous demand for plasma once the war began, the American Red Cross asked Charles Francis Drew to establish a system for collecting blood from the civilian population. He opened collection centers across the United States; then, when the Army later told the Red Cross to keep non-Caucasian blood separate from other donations, Drew, a black, resigned.

Three other major advances occurred because of the war. The introduction of high-speed, high-altitude aircraft forced the development of oxygen systems and pressure suits, which were later used in civilian aviation and in the space program. Penicillin went into production on a vast scale and was used to treat pneumonia, wound infection, meningitis, gonorrhea, and syphilis. And wartime research produced new drugs to combat malaria and new insecticides, notably DDT, which drastically reduced deaths from typhus.