The Image Series: Aveling and the Politics of Transfusion

Series November 9, 2015 10:20 am

The Image Series invites HASTS affiliates and guest authors to write freely about one image relevant to their work.  To contribute to this set, contact Lan Li at

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J. H. Aveling, `Immediate transfusion in England’, Obstetrics Journal, 1873, 1, 303. positions of patient and blood donor. Wellcome Library, London.

In 1873, James Aveling proposed the first apparatus for immediate transfusion, a blood transfusion procedure characterized by the direct connection between donor and patient. Theoretically, immediate transfusion aimed to circumvent the problem of coagulation or blood clotting thought to be caused by the blood’s contact with the air. Aveling promoted his technological solution as a method that was “safe, easy, uninterrupted, and a close imitation of Nature.”

But what Aveling believed to be “safe” and “a close imitation of nature” was precisely the center of intense medical debate* in Victorian scientific communities surrounding the controversial procedure of blood transfusion only recently brought back into practice in 1818 by James Blundell, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh.

In this figure, we have a representation of the proper positioning of patient and blood donor for immediate transfusion. Critical to my reading is the explicit gendering of the two subjects: the patient is depicted as a female in bed and the blood donor is depicted as a male seated by the bedside and facing away from the patient. Note also that Aveling’s figure first appears in the Obstetrics Journal. These details underscore the persistent gender hierarchy in Victorian medical theory and practice. The donor-patient relationship Aveling understands to be “a close imitation of nature” is a heterosexual one that physically connects the bodies of a healthy male donor and a receptive female. It is no surprise then that practitioners customarily employed husbands as donors for their wives due to the intimacy of the procedure that took place by the bedside.

Furthermore, we can connect blood transfusion to the history of obstetrics, which shifted during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from midwives to male physicians. The figure of the male physician (who could possibly be a quack) interloping in these otherwise private, domestic spaces, as well as possibly serving as a donor himself in the place of a husband with a weak constitution, provoked further suspicion of an already invasive, risky procedure.**

Gothic literature since the late eighteenth century and sensation fiction in the mid-nineteenth century dramatized the dangers that could befall the vulnerable “Angel in the House.” This gendered “gothic body,” characterized by her susceptibility to violation and permeability of corporeal boundaries, became the figure by which cultural anxieties surrounding the female could be worked out. Victorian gothic texts like Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “Good Lady Ducayne” (1896) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) feature explicitly the scene of blood transfusion, suffused with the sentimentality of the sickly female in need of male medical heroism. Stoker’s Dracula, in particular, imagines transfusion at its very limits. Van Helsing’s decision to transfuse the blood of Lucy’s suitors into her proves not only futile but also dangerous: Lucy, far from helpless, ultimately turns undead to prey upon children, and Dracula’s contagion now potentially circulates among the male citizens of an ostensibly pure English nation.

What is gothic about blood transfusion is the transgressive intermixing of bodily fluids, constitutions, and gender identities. Hypodermic procedures like transfusion and vaccination always risk contamination of blood purity, a fluid symbol of Victorian national fitness.


Travis Lau is a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania Department of English. His research interests include long eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature, the history and theory of the novel, the history of medicine, disability studies, body studies, and gender and sexuality studies. His dissertation, tentatively titled “Prophylactic Fictions: Immunity and Biopolitics,” explores the British literary and cultural history of immunity and vaccination beginning in the eighteenth century. His academic writing has been published in the Journal of Homosexuality (forthcoming) and Romantic Circles (forthcoming). His creative writing has appeared in WestwindThistleSpiresFeminine InquiryWordgathering, Synaesthesia, and QDA: A Queer Disability Anthology (Handtype Press, 2015).


*See Kim Pelis, “Blood Clots, The Nineteenth Century Debate Over the Substance and Means of Transfusion in Britain” for more specifics about these debates regarding the safety of blood letting and the problem of coagulation.

**See Holly Tucker’s Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution for a history of bloodletting, blood transfusion, and the development of modern science.


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