Walking Blood Banks: Why US Children Were Tattooed with Their Blood Type in the 1950s

The 1950s weren’t exactly characterized for having such broad views regarding tattoos, so it feels a bit out of place to say that this could be a common thing back in the day. However, it was fairly common in states like Utah and Indiana for several years as a result of the war of the USA against Korea.

Paul Bailey is believed to be the youngest baby to receive a tattoo for this project. It happened at Beaver County Hospital in Milford, Utah. The event seems to have happened with parental consent, and it took the hospital staff less than two hours to have the “O-Positive” mark on the newborn.

As scandalous as this may sound for the time when it happened, it was, in fact, received pretty calmly. That is because local health officers in Utah and Indiana were working hard to create a program to make life-saving blood transfusions more accessible to the general population.

The project led to adults and children, including babies, having their blood types tattooed on their bodies in case emergency blood transfusions were needed. You could say these people were “walking blood banks.

In the 50s, during the events of the Cold War, a nuclear attack was very likely, and times of war required drastic measures.

Dr. Theodore Curphey, part of the New York State Medical Society at the time, tried to make the project a reality, but it was rejected for multiple reasons. Firstly, the overall project cost would be too high, and the idea of having access to “universal donor blood” wasn’t tangible.

Plus, there was a margin of error of 10% when detecting a person’s blood type. Elizabeth K. Wolf and Anne E., historians and collaborators, commented: “Imagine having to tell every medic you visit that your blood type tattoo is wrong.”

Despite that, the project was approved by the Chicago Medical Civil Defense committee. Andrew C. Ivy, a local physician, pushed the idea and convinced the institution to green-light it. Even if the project was never truly made a reality, it was decided that the tattoos would be located in the chest since arms and legs were vulnerable to explosions.

Contrary to this, Lake County in Indiana went on with the project and started tattooing kids and adults in 1951. Thousands of people received tattoos, and it didn’t pass that much time until schoolchildren became part of the project.

Later on, the tattoos arrived in Utah, although the Mormon population didn’t receive them very well due to their beliefs. Bruce R. McConkie, an influential Mormon theologian at the time, said that tattoos were allowed as they would be in the “placing of a blood type or an identification number in an obscure place.”

Paul Bailey, the first baby to have received a tattoo, was dubbed the “coolest baby” after having his blood type tattooed only two hours after he was born.

In today’s world, this practice has been left behind, and people remain unlabeled in the US. If you want to find out someone’s blood type, you’ll have to ask them or have them tested.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of The Sized delivered to your inbox daily.