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Series: Women who changed the world - Dame Janet Vaughan

This is the satisfactory thing about science, you see, that sometimes the answer is the answer you get.” - Dame Janet Vaughan

Dame Janet Vaughan was a key figure in haematology, and ensured blood transfusions became standard medical practice. Deemed ‘too stupid to be educated’, Vaughan studied medicine at Somerville College in Oxford, after which she trained to be a doctor at University College London. It was here that she was first introduced to one of her passions, blood. Through her research she came to the conclusion that using a raw liver extract helped anaemic patients – though one of her senior professors claimed credit for the discovery.

Following on from this, Vaughan began working at the Harvard Medical School. As a foreigner and a woman, she was not allowed any contact with patients, or mice to use for her research. Ever resourceful, she got some pigeons – which she later dubbed her Bloody Pigeons – and performed some ground breaking research on vitamin B12.

She moved back to England where her life was perpetually busy – she taught medicine, worked at a hospital in London, and was happy at home with her husband and two daughters. It was the late 1930’s, and WWII was on the horizon. Dr Vaughan had worked with a Spanish haematologist, Dr Duran Jorda, who devised a plan to store large supplies of blood. Transfusions were now achievable, but a solution for the long-term storage of blood was not, so Vaughan began looking for answers. Not everyone was as interested though, in 1937, when asked about having a large and long-term blood supply the British Secretary of War, Douglass Starr, noted that blood was ‘more satisfactorily stored in our people.’

Vaughan pressed on regardless, setting up meetings of the newly founded Emergency Blood Transfusion Service to work out logistics. Ice cream vans were used to transport blood, and runners were hired so donors could be contacted. Three days before Britain declared war, Vaughan received a telegram from the Medical Research Council that simply read: Start Bleeding. The war started and the blood supply depot Vaughan was in charge of in Slough was working non-stop. Blood was moved everywhere, but there was too much demand, so blood began arriving from America, under the Blood Plasma for Great Britain program.

Even under this great strain, scientific research continued, thanks to Dr Vaughan. It was from this early research that better treatments for patients of shock and trauma were produced. The war was reaching its endpoint, and Vaughan accepted an offer to help understand how best to feed starving people at a Nazi death camp. She did her research and helped those she could, describing it in a letter home as ‘doing science in hell.’

After the war, Vaughan returned home, becoming Principal of Somerville College. Vaughan rose at dawn to start working before going in for a full day’s lab work, becoming an expert on radiation and its effect on the blood. All the while she fought to have women’s colleges accepted as full Oxford colleges, and increased the numbers of scientific and medical students at Somerville.

Dame Janet Vaughan passed away in 1993, at the age of 92. The legacy she left behind is obvious: over 800,000 people donate blood every year in the UK. When asked how she wanted to be remembered she said “As a scientist. That I have been able to solve, to throw light onto fascinating problems. But as a scientist who had a family. I don’t want to be thought of as a scientist who just sat thinking. It’s important you have a human life.”

With thanks - this post was written by Bini Claringbold.

Photo credit - Janet Vaughan, by Elliott & Fry, bromide print, 13 March 1945, © National Portrait Gallery, London, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0

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