James Harrison has rare antibodies in his blood that have helped scientists develop a vaccine for Rhesus disease, an often fatal disease in infants.
We can all help save lives by donating blood. But James Harrison, a 74-year-old man from Australia, has a very special type of blood—and thanks to his many donations through the years, he’s saved the lives of over two million babies.
Harrison, who’s been nicknamed “the man with the golden arm” due to his rare genetic gift, has an antibody in his blood plasma that can help babies with a sometimes fatal form of anemia called Rhesus disease. Over the years, he’s made 984 blood donations, which have been used to help hundreds of thousands of pregnant women treat their fetus’ condition.
Harrison became a committed donor after his own health crisis at age 14, when he had chest surgery and needed a transfusion of 13 liters of blood. “The blood I received saved my life so I made a pledge to give blood when I was 18,” he told The Daily Mail.
Soon after he began donating, doctors discovered that he had the rare antibody that could prevent Rhesus disease, which is caused by an incompatibility between the mother and baby’s blood types. After learning about the condition, Harrison volunteered to participate in tests to develop the Anti-D vaccine, which could be given to pregnant women to prevent the condition from harming their babies. It can also be given to infants immediately after birth.
Though Harrison will never meet most of the mothers he’s helped, a friend of his, Joy Barnes, had the chance to thank him face to face for his commitment to helping science. Before the vaccine was invented, she had miscarried twice because of Rhesus disease. After receiving the injection, she gave birth to a healthy child.
“Without him I would never have been able to have a healthy baby,” she said.
Harrison has an even more personal connection to one recipient: his own daughter, Tracey, who received the vaccine as an infant.
Now, even though Harrison has lost his wife of 56 years, he remains committed to giving his blood. “It was sad but life marches on and we have to continue doing what we do. She’s up there looking down, so I carry on.”
He’ll be coming up on the 1,000 donation mark this September.