When 81-year-old John Harrison was just 14 years old, he received a blood transfusion following a major chest surgery. He had a lung removed, and 13 units (nearly 2 gallons) of other peoples' blood made their life-saving way into his veins.
That life-saving transfusion inspired Harrison's later generosity, and he promised to begin donating once he turned 18, and did so weekly until Friday, May 11, when he gave his final donation at 81 years old, according to the Australian Red Cross. That's the maximum age in Australia for giving blood.
Harrison's prolific donation is notable enough that Guinness World Records awarded Harrison in 2003, recognizing his achievement for the most blood donated by a single person. But Harrison's blood is notable not only for quantity, but also for quality. He's credited with saving the lives of more than 2 million Australian babies.
Harrison, known in Australia as "The Man With the Golden Arm," produces a rare and powerful antibody in his blood called RhD immunoglobulin, or anti-D. It protects unborn babies from the potentially deadly condition Rh incompatibility (also called rhesus isoimmunization, Rhesus D hemolytic disease of the newborn, Rh disease or Rhesus HDN).
When a pregnant woman with an Rh-negative blood type carries a baby with Rh-positive blood, the woman's body mistakenly treats the baby's red blood cells like an outside threat. Her body produces antibodies to combat what it perceives as an invader, to potentially deadly effect: miscarriage, stillbirth, fetal brain damage and anemia are all possible.
The transfusion Harrison received as a teen may have contributed to the unique composition of the blood his body now produces, Australian doctors have theorized.
Harrison made his final contribution at the Town Hall Donor Centre in Sydney, Australia, surrounded by women and their children who'd benefited from the treatment, as well as large silver balloons in the shape of numerals 1173 — the number of times Harrison donated blood throughout his life.
"It's a sad day for me. The end of a long run," Harrison told a Sydney Morning Herald reporter attending the final donation.
"Every ampule of Anti-D ever made in Australia has James in it," Robyn Barlow, the Rh program coordinator who recruited James to be the program's first donor, told the newspaper. "Since the very first mother received her dose at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1967. It's an enormous thing ... He has saved millions of babies. I cry just thinking about it."
Approximately 17 percent of pregnant Australian women receive doses of Anti-D. That number includes Harrison's own daughter Tracey Mellowship, who was treated in 1992 and gave birth to a healthy son named Scott in 1995. When Scott turned 16 in 2011, he gave his first blood donation sitting next to his grandfather, who was marking his 1000th.
James Harrison, who received the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1999, has had a lifelong fear of needles. In his more than six decades of donating blood, he's never watched a nurse insert a needle in his arm, preferring to look away.