Cool Things - Medical Transport Box
The box dates from World War II, when the Armed Forces were experimenting with the transport of whole blood into battle zones.
Discovered among the possessions of Dr. Henry S. Blake, the box is associated with his wartime service. Blake was a Lieutenant with the Medical Corps of the U.S. Naval Reserve attached to the Marine Corps. More importantly, Blake served as technical director of the American Red Cross' Blood Donor Program at the end of World War II.
Demand for Blood
War generates a high demand for blood to save the lives of wounded soldiers. The difficulty lies in transporting the blood, which must be stored at temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit--a difficult proposition in almost any climate, but particularly in the tropics. During most of the second world war, plasma was used instead of whole blood because it is much easier to transport. Although plasma helps stop bleeding, it is an inadequate substitute for whole blood in saving human lives.
Dr. Henry Blake's interest in the transport of whole blood dates from his earliest wartime service. In 1942, he took part in the initial assault on Guadalcanal as a battalion surgeon for the Marine Corps. Months of furious fighting resulted in a high casualty toll on this Pacific island, and it had a big impact on the young surgeon.
It was at Guadalcanal that Blake realized whole blood--not plasma--was desperately needed. He later recalled the loss of two soldiers' lives there: "We had been able to stop the bleeding and had given them large amounts of blood plasma, but they still died from insufficient blood. . . . We needed whole blood."
Malaria and hepatitis forced Blake to leave Guadalcanal after six months. Although he wanted to return to the front, superiors appointed him Technical Director of a cooperative Navy/Army project known as the Blood Donor Program. This project was basically a series of experiments in the transport of whole blood, with many prototypes being developed during the course of the war.
Blake's involvement in the experimental transport of whole blood began during the summer of 1944, when he developed a prototype for an insulated crate (made largely of plywood and fiberglass). Although skeptical at first, the Navy eventually supported him, and the first flight to transport blood from the U.S. to the Pacific Theatre happened that fall. Blake accompanied the blood to Leyte (the Philippines) and took it to an aid station where two corpsmen were attempting to save the life of a soldier. In Blake's words, "The wounded soldier's condition kept deteriorating and he was barely comatose in spite of three units of plasma. The corpsmen had the fourth unit ready. After a quick examination on my part, I told them I had some whole blood. After three units of this, his pulse was good, he had opened his eyes and said a few words. . . . As I left, both corpsmen stood up as if at attention and one of them said 'Thank you Sir.' The wounded soldier in a low but audible voice said 'me too.'" The experiment had succeeded.
Although not Blake's prototype box, the container pictured here is a rare example of a World War II medical supplies transport box. It may have been used by Blake while serving as a field surgeon at Guadalcanal, or perhaps was an experimental piece given to him by its manufacturer, the Reynolds Metals Company.
Reynolds' wartime newsletters confirm the company's extensive involvement in manufacturing all sorts of items for military use, including metal foil packages for shipments of drugs and first-aid supplies. A Reynolds report dated August 1945 brags: "So extensive are the uses of these products that in the fighting overseas there's hardly a battle area that does not bear the earmark of Reynolds."
After his wartime service, Dr. Henry Blake returned to Topeka and had a long, successful practice. He also founded the Topeka Blood Bank, serving as its first president, and was active in community organizations and charities throughout his life. He died in 1990.
The Frigichest container was donated to the Kansas Museum of History by Dr. Blake's daughter, Susan Blake Lemon.
Entry: Cool Things - Medical Transport Box
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: October 2003
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.