Editor’s Note: Patrick M. Walsh is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He studies the the cross-talk between bacteriology, immunology and endocrinology in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
Blood is everywhere I look in the Kremers Reference Files (KRF) at the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy (AIHP). It’s in trade manuals published from the 1890s to the 1930s by Parke-Davis, Eli Lilly, and H. K. Mulford. It’s in advertisements from meatpacking-turned-drug companies, including Bovinine and the Cudahy Packing Company. It’s in dusty, century-old newspaper clippings that describe how tons of animal flesh were transported from slaughterhouse to factory line, ripe for experimentation and drug production.
I came to the KRF to start my dissertation work about the American vaccine industry at the turn of the twentieth century, but, instead, all I found was blood. Image after image of blood being suctioned out of stable-bound horses. Blood coursing through plastic tubes that look like fiberoptic cables. Blood being rapidly deposited into oversized receptacles, red foam climbing up the sides of the glass. Some of the images look almost staged—deliberately and self-consciously reenacting a scene from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, then just 80 years old.
Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. I knew before going into the KRF that the vaccine industry was fully launched in the 1890s with the diphtheria antitoxin vaccine, that this was a “serotherapy,” and that all serotherapies involve a process of blood harvesting. It is a vampiric practice by definition. Hundreds of horses stand at attention, and scientists buzz around them like angry mosquitoes, directing their syringes with precision into pulsing jugulars, delighting at the extraction of potent antitoxins that hurtle invisibly through equine vascular systems. Antitoxin-rich blood was as good as gold at the turn of the century, and it brought companies like Parke-Davis and H. K. Mulford material, social, and political capital.