Blood drives nowadays are a casual event where you can walk in, have a nurse draw your blood in a couple of seconds, and leave with a cookie in hand, satisfied that you’ve just contributed vital “red gold” that could potentially save someone’s life. It’s a simple procedure that requires little dedication and requires no actual interaction between the donor and the receiver of the blood, a far cry from the blood transfusions of the early twentieth century.

One hundred years ago, when physicians did not know how to prevent blood clots or coagulation when blood is stored, transfusions literally transferred blood from the veins of the donor directly into the veins of the receiver, sometimes with their veins sewn together or connected with rubber tubing. The process would take hours and require both participants to lay still next to each other while the physician worked with painful deliberation. It wasn’t until World War 1 that technology for storing and transferring blood safely was developed and implemented with widespread impact. Soldiers on the battlefield were being treated left and right with blood transfusions without the donors in the tent with them. This was huge, and was only one of many medical innovations that were driven by the terrors of war. Hippocrates is quoted as saying that “war is the only proper school for a surgeon”. The fact of the matter is that large-scale scientific development, in the medical field or elsewhere, is driven primarily by need rather than curiosity. Throughout history we can see that the greatest leaps in science and technology often are resultative of crises like wars. The effects of mustard gas in WW1 influenced the adolescent sparks of chemotherapy, the use of metal plates to heal bone fractures in WW2 cut the time it took for soldiers to recover from injuries, and the usage of frozen blood in the Vietnam war significantly lengthened the amount of time that blood could be stored.

Many seem to disregard the medical advances of these two global wars in order to more strongly consider the exciting and terrifying developments on weaponry such as fighter jets and atomic bombs, but the progress that these battles have made on the hospital bed are just as exciting, and I would argue, more prevalent in today’s society than any bomb or piece of artillery. The Cold War, of course, almost romanticized the idea of nuclear arms, captivating the nation and spurring the space race and eventually the legendary 1969 moon landing. But working quietly behind the demonstrations were the tireless doctors and nurses implementing the lifesaving procedures that were learned on the battlefield. It is very likely that, had these wars not occurred, and the need for more and more efficient medical practices had not been skyhigh, the medical field as we know it today may not be nearly as advanced as it is. Nowadays, in a time period of relative peace, we see big pharmaceutical industries dominating the market, and snuffing out any hopes for alternative, affordable, and more effective drugs because of the danger they pose to profits. Progress in the cures for terminal illnesses is painstakingly slow because there is more money to be made in keeping a dying patient on expensive treatment than just curing them once and for all. The war on drugs, which is still raging in the United States, has curbed research on non-addictive treatments like medical marijuana, yet pharmacies continue to pump out opiate prescriptions — 58 prescriptions per every 100 Americans in 2017. We can observe from all of these situations that the motives to advance medical research are weak as long as no urgency exists. As soon as a war or national epidemic strikes, threatening our health in some way, its is undeniable that the medical field would suddenly receive all the greenlights and funding it needs to address it. Politics often seems to be the limiting factor of scientific industry, both through funding and through control of regulation on research. However it is the will of large scale donors and constituents that guide politics, and rarely, if ever, do the goals of the two intersect with scientific development. It’s hard to see a convergence of interests like this happening anytime soon, bearing in mind the nation’s current stubbornness against change to be made in the face of impending environmental disaster.