Who was the Most Prolific Serial Killer of All Time?
In the pantheon of worst humans to ever human you will find no shortage of bastions of awful. Hitler probably has the most collective conscious panache, but at least he had the decency to bravely, and with no regard for his personal safety, infiltrate the Hitler bunker and then put a bullet through the cranium of Hitler. But individuals like Hitler did their killing via proxy. As for those who were a little more hands on, the Hitler of these was arguably a man by the name of Vasili Blokhin who, as we’ve covered previously in our video Who Has Directly Murdered the Most People By Their Own Hand?, personally killed, one at a time, over 7,000 people in under one month alone, let alone countless others he offed at other points in his career. Vasili and many others like him, however, killed for their respective states. In contrast, within this subset of individuals who killed by their own hand, we have a special class that in recent decades has been given the moniker “serial killer”, which brings us to the macabre topic of today- who was the most prolific serial killer of all time?
To begin with, we should briefly discuss what classifies someone as a “serial killer” instead of one of the other individuals who rid the world of humans. To whit, the FBI definition of “serial killer” is a person who has “Three or more separate events with an emotional cooling off period between homicides, each murder taking place at a different location.” Of course, this definition is rather lacking on a number of fronts, not the least of which is that individuals like Vasili Blokhin or other decorated soldiers, as he was, and veterans of countless battlefields almost fit that definition, though nobody would consider them serial killers. Going a little further, it’s often put forth to add someone who repeatedly kills for psychologically gratifying, often sexual, reasons.
Further muddying the waters are those sometimes called spree killers, whose acts may in many cases mirror that of a serial killer, but with the distinction generally put forth that a spree killer generally has little time between killings, or more aptly little in the way of a cooling off period- simply going on a rampage for possibly even days or weeks, but otherwise mostly non-stop until they do stop for whatever reason. And then, assuming they survived, never take up killing again.
Given all the ambiguity here, it’s noteworthy that these sorts of classifications are more for media and the like talking about these individuals and generally considered to have little benefit for law enforcement themselves. And, indeed, from agency to agency, nobody quite agrees perfectly on a set definition.
That out of the way, when focusing on which serial killer murdered the most people, the ambiguity mostly resolves itself given the sheer scope and timespans needed to commit their many murders, most definitely including cooling off periods and some serious mental health issues. So, who was the most prolifically awful in this way in known history?
Often cited individuals include the likes of nobles such as the 15th century Baron Gilles de Rais and the 16th century Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed. As for Rais, who was a compatriot of none other than Joan d’Arc, he is generally stated to have killed potentially even upwards of several hundred children for sexual gratification purposes… However, nailing down a definitive figure for his crimes is impossible. Not only this, what also might surprise many is that when digging into the matter, there is considerable question as to whether he actually committed any of the atrocities he was tried and convicted for.
As for the evidence against him, this on the surface seems iron clad in the form of a detailed confession from the man himself, testimonies from some of the parents, a confession from his bodyguard who was apparently heavily involved in the events, etc. However, despite having supposedly brutally tortured and murdered a truly massive number of children, there was zero physical evidence found to support this. Not so much as a scrap of clothing, blood stain, or bone found on his estate that could be tied to any of the children.
This is noteworthy as it’s contrary to accounts you will read in many biographies of the man that frequently claim that the remains of 40 bodies were uncovered at his residence. Support for this claim, however, seems non-existent, and it appears to be something someone wrote at some point in relatively modern times and everyone else just assumed to be true without looking at the original records that show no such evidence was ever presented at the trial nor came up in any of the primary records of the investigation. As for Rais, he claimed he had burned the bodies and the remnants from there were thrown into places like the cesspit, buried, etc..
It’s further noted that it was not any parents of the hundreds of missing children or the like that brought these alleged atrocities to light, but simply that Rais had gotten on the bad side of the church, who would soon after make these claims against him. A second investigation was then launched separate from that of the church’s which came to the same conclusion- Rais had kidnapped, brutally tortured, raped, and murdered countless children.
In support of the skeptics, an important point to note in all of this was that the two judges prosecuting the trial, the Duke of Brittany, Jean V de Montfort, and the Archbishop of Nantes, Jean de Malestroit, were slated to acquire the titles to many of Rais’ lands if Rais was convicted of what the church had alleged he’d done…
On top of this, we should probably at this point mention he was subjected to an Inquisition style interrogation and further threatened with pretty brutal torture if he didn’t confess. On top of that, he was also threatened with excommunication from the church if he didn’t confess which, for an extremely religious man as he appears to have been, was no small thing, especially when facing imminent death.
As Morgan State University Professor of History, John D. Hosler notes, “All in all, the affair contains a number of pretty standard medieval tropes and accusations… Gilles’ actual guilt is much held in doubt by historians today.”
That said, as he did technically confess and it can’t otherwise be proven he didn’t do it either, he is still generally considered one of history’s most prolific serial killers, despite the doubt. Although exactly how many people he may or may not have actually killed, combined with the reasonable skepticism that he did any of it, well, let’s just say we’re not prepared to give him the crown of King of Awful.
Moving swiftly on, we have the case of the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed who is said to have brutally tortured and killed for her own perverse pleasure several hundred individuals of the female persuasion, potentially as many as 650. If estimates are true here, she would be not only a relatively rare example of a female serial killer, but also likely the most prolific serial killer of all time… Except, here too, skeptics note there are some fishy things about the trial, as well as considerable benefit to others if the enormously wealthy Countess and her family’s influence in the region were curtailed. Much like Rais, this doesn’t necessarily mean she didn’t do at least some of these things, just that there is some reason to at the very least doubt the extent, and maybe even the entire thing.
For example, many of the testimonies given of directly having seen physical evidence of these crimes were extracted via torture, and most of the rest of the testimonies were of people saying someone else had told them they had seen things, rather than witnessing them themselves. On top of this, the man who ordered the investigation, King Matthias II, owed a massive sum of money to the Countess, but if she was convicted the debt would be canceled…
For whatever it’s worth, she was in the end convicted and sentenced to more or less house arrest in Csejte Castle, where she remained until her death four years later in 1614.
Thus, while both of these individuals could potentially be the most prolific serial killers of all time, and frequently cited as such, in both of these cases, and indeed many other similar from the distant past, it’s difficult to determine the veracity of claims against them. So we are otherwise going to ignore them in crowning the King.
This all brings us to more modern, and better documented times. Enter four individuals, all vying for the top spot, a couple of which are still alive and kicking, one even released from prison and then immediately absconded from his parole and nobody knows where he is… Another who was recently recommended to be released from prison for good behavior… He wants to get into politics apparently… Despite, as we’ll get into shortly, having brutally tortured, raped, and murdered hundreds of children… Yep…
We’ll do our best to cleanse your palate with some good vibes at the end of this one as, I think we can all agree, we’ll need it.
Alrightly, let’s get this over with, shall we?
Candidate #1 on the list is often given the top spot despite that the other three individuals we will get to shortly are very likely to have killed more. That said, Mr. Harold Shipman is often cited as the most prolific serial killer of all time simply because his murders were extremely well documented, as he was a physician.
Mr. Shipman was born in 1946 and seemingly had an otherwise normal middle class upbringing, though his mother died of lung cancer when he was 17. This is generally pointed to as a possible significant event in his later deeds given during her decline she was administered copious amounts of morphine by a home physician to ease her suffering. Why is this possibly important? This was more or less the method in which he would kill his elderly patients, most of whom were women, though not terminally ill as his mother had been.
Mr. Shipman’s particular method of murder was not unlike another famed serial killer, The Nightmare Nurse, Jane Toppan, who would administer doses of various drugs to mostly elderly patients, generally alternating morphine and atropine in her case. She later stated she enjoyed bringing them to the edge of death and back over the course of days or weeks, before ultimately deciding to kill them. As for her motivation, this appears to have been sexual, and she apparently enjoyed crawling into bed and holding them while they died. For example, in one account of a surviving patient, one Amelia Phinney, she described Toppan giving her some unknown drug after Phinney underwent an operation. Not long after taking the drug, Phinney lost consciousness, but later vaguely remembered Toppan in bed with her kissing her around her face, before suddenly jumping out of bed and fleeing the room when someone was heard walking by. For much, much more on Miss Toppan, go see our video The Horrific Story of the Nightmare Nurse on our sister channel Highlight History.
In any event, going back to Shipman, his dastardly deeds were first suspected by one Linda Reynolds of The Brooke Surgery in Hyde, England. In particular, she had noticed that an abnormally high number of Shipman’s patients had a tendency to just up and die. The matter was ultimately investigated by the police, but no charges were filed owing to lack of sufficient evidence pointing to the deaths being murder and not just the unlucky physician having many of his elderly patients die.
Despite the investigation, after being cleared, Shipman went on with his murderous ways, which seems more than a little bizarre after the spotlight had been on him. Things became even more questionable in terms of either his intelligence, or maybe he just wanted to get caught, as his last victim, one Kathleen Grundy, he didn’t just kill. On top of the murder, he created a will that not only excluded her children, but left nearly four hundred thousand pounds to Shipman himself.
Let’s just say the authorities had collective raised eyebrows when her daughter, Angela Woodruff, brought all of this to their attention. Body exhumed, the investigators found that Grundy had diamorphine, also known as heroin, in her system. Shipman countered that Grundy had a heroin addiction and even backed up these claims with notes he’d taken about this… Unfortunately for him, these digital files were later shown to have been written after her death.
It was on.
A full investigation was launched, coined the Shipman Inquiry, with the two year investigation coming up with some startling conclusions. Among other things, the findings estimated that at least 218 of Shipman’s patients had been murdered, with another couple dozen in question, but potentially to also have been murdered. For reference here, over the course of his work, a total of 459 of his patients died under his care over a 27 year span. As for the subset that died via murder, as noted, the vast majority of these individuals were elderly women. With his modus operandi being to give the patients a lethal dose of diamorphine. After he murdered them, he would go back and alter records to make it seem as if they had been much sicker than they actually were.
Four years after his conviction on 15 of the murders, Shipman was found on the morning of January 13, 2004 by prison officials, having performed his final murder- hanging himself in his cell using bed sheet’s he’d tied to the bars on his window. Not long before this, he’d told an official he was considering killing himself as if he lived past 60, his wife would no longer be entitled to his National Health Service pension. He was 58 at the time of his death.
Now, while Shipman holds the crown in terms of relatively verifiable murders, the next three individuals are generally thought to actually be the leaders here. And even if they aren’t, while Shipman’s acts were reprehensible… let’s just say his victims had it easy compared to the victims of the following gruesome threesome.
Enter “The Beast”, Luis Alfredo Garavito Cubillos. Born in 1957 in Columbia, as with most serial killers, Cubillos’ homelife wasn’t exactly awesome as a child. Frequently abused by his alcoholic father and allegedly his mother not particularly caring for him, the general environment he grew up in was one of neglect and alcoholism, with a heaping of domestic violence thrown in. His school life was apparently little better with later accounts from teachers and those who knew him there noting that while he was an eager student, he wasn’t terribly gifted academically and was frequently mercilessly bullied at school, as well as almost completely ostracized by his peers. Things didn’t get much better for him when a family friend allegedly began sexually abusing him when he was 12 years old…
If this wasn’t bad enough, Cubillos’ homosexual preferences didn’t sit well with his dear old dad, who gave him the boot out of the house because of it. In the ensuing years, he would find various odd jobs, attempt to kill himself, attempt to get psychiatric help, and began regularly molesting random boys… This ultimately progressed to also severely abusing the boys in other ways while molesting them, similar to what had been done to him as a child.
Things progressed even further when, according to Garavito, the devil told him he should also kill the kids… His supposed first attempted murder did not, however, go well when, while attempting to lure a boy to his death, the police caught and beat him, as well as allegedly took his money, watch, and a ring he had before letting him go. Unfortunately, not long after, he was successful, on October 4, 1992, killing a boy named Juan Carlos.
This video is dark enough so we’ll otherwise spare you his specific acts in any real detail. But briefly just to give you an idea, dismembering and doing things with said members while his victims were still alive was a thing… And honestly, that is just the tip of an iceberg we don’t want to talk about. So we’ll just sum up and say these children were brutally tortured in some of the worst ways imaginable as he claimed it was the only way he could reach climax…
Moving SWIFTLY on, from here Garavito began compulsively torturing, raping, and murdering boys he came across, with his modus operandi being to do things like offer them treats, alcohol, work, etc. to lure them to a secluded area…He is also known to have murdered at least 5 adults, though in these cases just for practical purposes of getting rid of witnesses.
Garavito’s luck ran out, however, on April 22, 1999 when he abducted a 12 year old by the name of John Sabogal. While he was doing his thing to the boy, another teen saw and began throwing rocks at him. At which point Garavito tried to chase after the other boy, but lost him. Ultimately in the aftermath the police were called and, long story short, Garavito was finally arrested thanks to the fact that he’d left his underwear, shoes, and glasses at the crime scene. Significantly, his underwear had some of his DNA on them to confirm they were, in fact, his.
Ultimately, Garavito decided to be extremely cooperative, showing the officials his journal which had a list of 140 of his victims by name, as well as led the police to where he stashed some of the bodies. All total, he was convicted of murdering 138 children, though the real number was thought to be much higher. And, indeed, the man himself confessed to another 50 or so on top of the 140 in his book, bringing his horrid total of murders up to around 200 or so if true.
Garavito was subsequently sentenced to 1,853 years and 9 days in prison. However, in Columbia at the time, the maximum sentence that could be carried out was just 40 years. And because Garavito was so cooperative with the authorities, this was further reduced and he’s eligible for parole in 2023… Yep…
On top of that, owing to, to quote, “exemplary” behavior while in prison, as well as his willingness to take part in various studies on himself, then director of the Valledupar Maximum and Medium Security Penitentiary, César Fernando Caraballo, recently filed to give Garavito an even earlier release, much to the chagrin of quite literally everyone. However, the judge in the case was able to find an out to the whole thing, given that Garavito has not yet paid the required $41,500 restitution to the victims’ families. Thus, the request for early release was denied.
Then Colombian President Ivan Duque, also chimed in on the matter stating, “That beast is a bandit, a criminal. He is a stinking rat who has done nothing but harm children in our country. And the destiny of that criminal is to continue in jail… I have profound indignation at the possibility that anyone would suggest that that beast leave prison.”
As for the man himself, he seems still optimistic he will be released at some point and wants to get into politics on a platform of advocating for abused children. However, even in prison he has to be mostly isolated from other inmates, as officials are quite sure his life would abruptly end not long after if they put him with the general prison population. So let’s just say we are guessing the general public is also likely to have similar designs should he be released, and are thus, we are further speculating, unlikely to vote for him. It’s also noted that apparently he has relatively recently developed leukemia, so that may well also put a damper on his political aspirations. Some people just can’t catch a break…
This brings us to Pedro Alonso Lopez, who also happens to have been Columbian… And interesting aside here, the number of Columbians from around this era who are ranked among the top serial killers of all time is a fascinating phenomenon. As to why, it’s conjectured this had to do with the unrest in the region during these individuals’ reign of terrors, and how many impoverished children there were around and unlikely to be reported missing, allowing these individuals to get away with their reprehensible acts on a mass scale.
Whatever the case, Lopez was born in 1948 in Columbia. The son of a prostitute, he seems to have been introduced to sexual acts at a rather young age, and subsequently was caught by his mother fondling his little sister when he was 8, at which point his mother gave him the boot.
Not long after, living on the streets, he claims a man promised him food if he’d come with him, but then instead brutally raped him. Later, in an orphanage, he was allegedly molested by one of his male teachers, though the veracity of these claims are difficult to determine.
Whatever the case, he ran away from the orphanage and turned to a life of crime, ultimately resulting in him finding himself in the clink for stealing a car. While in prison, he was gang-raped, resulting in him committed his first known murders, killing the three men who had raped him. After which, he no longer had any trouble with anyone else in the prison attempting to harm him. While you might think these murders would have drastically extended his stay there, only two years were added.
Upon release from prison, he lived in various places including Peru, Ecuador, and, of course, Columbia. In these various locations, according to him, he would rape and murder about three girls a week at his peek, targeting girls around 9-12 years old. As to why this age, he stated because, “I lost my innocence at age of eight. So I decided to do the same to as many girls as I could.” He also noted his preference for Ecuadorian girls because, to quote this asshat, “I like the girls in Ecuador; they are more gentle and trusting. More innocent.”… He also claims he liked to occasionally go back and dig up the girls that weren’t dead too long to have tea parties with several of their bodies…
Nearly having to face the music in 1978, a local tribe caught him attempting to kidnap one of their children. They then beat the ever loving crap out of him, followed by burying him up to his neck. Next, they intended to cover his head in syrup so ants would eat his face. Unfortunately for his later victims, a U.S. missionary witnessed the event and managed to get the tribe to release him to the police instead… Not long after, he was set free by the police. At this point, he would later state he’d already raped and murdered over 100 girls.
In another instance in Ecuador he was caught trying to abduct a girl and, when those around became aware, they attempted to lynch him, but police intervened on this one. This time, they looked into the matter, especially as they had a large list of missing children they had been investigating and they believed him to be part of a gang abducting the girls. He confessed, however, that there was no gang and that at this point he’d kidnapped and murdered, to quote him, “Over two hundred in Ecuador, some tens in Peru, and many more in Columbia.”
Lopez backed these claims up by taking the police around to 53 of the bodies he’d buried in Ambato, Ecuador alone.
For his crimes, Lopez was sentenced to 16 years in prison… Yes. Just 16 years… As to why so small a sentence, at the time this was the maximum that could be leveled in Ecuador for murder.
Much like Garavito after him, Lopez was a model inmate and in his case, this earned him two years off his sentence, and he was released in 1994. It wasn’t over for him yet, however, as his first act was to attempt to illegally leave the country to Ecuador. Rather than continue to deal with him, he was deported to Columbia to answer for his crimes there. However, upon investigation, he was determined to be insane and instead of prison, wound up in a mental hospital where he was kept until 1998 when he was deemed rehabilitated and perfectly sane. $50 bail later, he was released, under the stipulation that he regularly report to the police…
That’s the last anyone seems to have heard of the man, outside of a visit to his mother in which he apparently made her get on her knees in front of him… Naturally, she was quite sure he was going to murder her, but instead she says he blessed her. And no known person has heard from him since.
Some speculate that he didn’t actually abscond at all after blessing his mother, but rather locals simply took matters into their own hands and made him disappear. However, there is no real evidence of this or his current whereabouts, whether alive or dead.
For the final candidate on the list of potentially the most prolific serial killer of all time, we have yet another Columbian, one Daniel Camargo Barbosa. Born in 1930, Camargo is thought to have raped and murdered around 200 girls across Columbia and Ecuador around the same time Lopez was doing the same. In Camargo’s case, his mother died when he was a baby, and his father would later remarry, with his stepmother apparently being the very definition of the wicked stepmom, abusing him physically as well as mentally. Including at one point forcing him to dress as a girl and go to school that way.
As an adult his life proceeded pretty normally at first until he found out the woman he was going to marry was not, in fact, a virgin… *gasp* Rather than leave her, the pair simply teamed up to find him virgins to have sex with, with his woman, Esperanza, luring the girls in, then drugging them so he could rape them. At this stage that was all he did, letting them go after. Of course, this couldn’t go on forever without being caught, and after five such rapes, the twisted couple were arrested and convicted. As for Camargo, he was initially given just three years for these crimes, but a later judge upped it to eight.
Upon release in the early 1970s, after a bit of minor shenanigans in Brazil he was deported to Columbia. While working as a street vendor in Columbia, he saw a 9 year old girl he decided to kidnap, rape, and murder. On this latter atrocity, he stated he decided to kill her simply as a way to help avoid getting caught. It’s speculated upwards of 80 other girls in Columbia met the same fate by his hands before he was caught and convicted, sentenced to 30 years in prison, but later reduced to 25. However, this sentence was meaningless as he managed to escape prison in 1984. Over the course of the next two years while living on the streets in Ecuador, he then raped and murdered at least 54 other girls.
Noteworthy here is that he apparently made a living while on the streets by collecting ballpoint pens and reselling them, which begins to paint a picture of what happens to all those ballpoint pens we all use, never use up, but then can never find when we need a pen. Serial killers simply take and resell them apparently… Probably taking them from your home while you’re sleeping…
Finally, in February of 1986, directly after raping and murdering a 9 year old girl, police discovered this douche carrying a bag containing the clitoris and bloody clothes of his latest victim. He would later confess to killing some 72 girls since his prison break and led the authorities to various grave sites in the woods to corroborate some of this.
For these crimes he was given a mere 16 year prison sentence, once again the maximum that could be leveled in Ecuador for murder. Unlike Garavito, Camargo was not kept from the general prison populace for his protection. And, unfortunately for him and fortunately for the rest of us, one of his victims had a relative serving time in the same prison… Said relative wasted little time stabbing and killing the 64 year old Camargo on November 13, 1994.
So at least one of these stories has a happy ending…
So there you have it. Among the pantheon of awful humans, the crown king of the serial killer variety is either a physician offing his more seasoned patients by giving them copious amounts of heroin, or three Columbians who did things we wish we had never had to read about in our research… It’s a living…
And now because we ourselves need to cleanse our pallet and prefer genuine happy endings, we are going to leave you with a couple stories of bastions of awesome.
First up, we have one Albert Göring, brother of Hitler’s right hand man, Hermann Göring… Now, at this point, given his family associations you might be wondering how Albert could be called a bastion of awesome. But stick with us. Not just despising the Nazi’s, Albert also put his life on the line to do something about it and, particularly as he was mostly vilified in his lifetime, deserves to have his story told.
According to the book Thirty Four, by William Burke, Albert’s first known open act to help the Jews was a small one. While in Vienna, he happened upon a group of Jewish women who had a vicious mob around them and were being forced to scrub the streets. When he saw this, he simply walked up to one of the women, asked for a scrub brush from her, and knelt down and began scrubbing the street as well. This didn’t sit well with the officers who were overseeing the whole thing. But when they realized who Albert’s brother was, they quickly ordered the scrubbing to stop and the mob to disperse.
In a similar incident, this one which resulted in his own arrest, he came upon a small mob that was harassing an elderly Jewish woman, putting a sign around her neck that stated, “I am a Jewish sow.” Albert pushed his way through the crowd around her and helped the woman escape the little mob. In the process of doing so, he had to physically attack two members of the Gestapo, for which he was ultimately arrested. As before, once they realized who they’d arrested, he was set free.
More significantly, Albert is thought to have helped countless Jewish people by helping fund an underground movement that helped Jews escape to freedom; he also forged his brother’s signature on several occasions to get Jews and others released from concentration camps and prison. Other times, he’d simply convince Hermann to sign an order to let certain people go, playing on his brother’s vanity and love for displaying his power.
In his most daring act, he drove up to a concentration camp and simply demanded he be given Jews for labor for the company Skoda Works, where Albert worked at the time. Normally, as he had no official papers for such a request, he would have been turned away. But because he was the brother of Hermann Göring, his request was granted. After loading his truck with as many Jews as he could, he drove them off to a remote area and let them go with instructions on their best route to freedom.
After that, though, the jig was up and an order was sent from Berlin to have him shot. He managed to escape to a safe house, however, and the war ended very soon after.
However, upon presenting himself to Allied soldiers, he was promptly arrested. Unlike his older brother, Albert was acquitted during the Nuremberg trials, though not before spending around a year and a half in prison, with no one believing him that he had actually spent the war actively working against the Nazis and helping as many people as he could escape their clutches.
In fact, when he first told his story after being arrested, Major Paul Kubala noted in Albert’s file, “The results of the interrogation of Albert Göring constitute as clever a piece of whitewash as we have ever seen.”
However, Albert finally did find someone willing to listen in Major Victor Parker. He had given Parker a list of 34 Jews he knew the names of that he had personally helped escape. By an extraordinary coincidence, one of the Jews on the list was Major Parker’s uncle. After verifying the claim with his uncle, the Major pursued the other names on the list who all testified in Albert’s defense and he was finally set free.
Unfortunately, after the war he found himself largely shunned due to his association with his brother and that few knew of Albert’s real activities during the war. As a result, he struggled to find work for the remainder of his life and ultimately became an alcoholic. As his health began to fail and death was imminent in 1966 (he was dying of pancreatic cancer), Albert decided to marry his housekeeper. Seemingly a good man to his end, this was not out of love, but simply because by doing so, she would then be entitled to his government pension, making sure she would be taken care of financially after her services as his housekeeper were no longer required. He died a week later in December of 1966.
And finally in slightly more modern times our next bastion of awesome has saved millions of lives to date, one James Harrison of Australia- the man with the golden arm. As to how he’s saved so many, Harrison’s blood contains an antibody called Rho(D) Immune Globulin that is used to treat Rhesus disease, a severe form of anemia where antibodies in a pregnant woman’s blood destroy her baby’s blood cells.
James Harrison may never have discovered this quirk in his blood if it were not for the fact that when he was 13 in 1949, Harrison had major chest surgery. The surgery required transfusions of almost three-and-a-half gallons of blood. During the three months he spent recovering in the hospital, grateful for the donated blood that had saved his life, he pledged to start donating his own as soon as he was legally old enough as a way to pay back the kindness of the strangers who donated the blood he used. (At the time, one needed to be 18 to donate blood.)
In 1954, when Harrison turned 18 and started giving blood, it was quickly discovered that his blood contained a rare, very valuable lifesaving antibody that could be used to treat Rhesus disease.
At that time, Rhesus disease was killing tens of thousands of babies per year (around 10,000 annually in the U.S. alone), as well as causing major birth defects such as brain damage. Most people (about 85%) have a special protein in their blood cells called the Rh factor, which makes them Rh positive (positive blood type); the remainder, who lack Rh factor, are called Rh negative (and have a negative blood type).
Women who’ve been pregnant may remember the Rh blood test, which screens to detect any incompatibility. As to why this is important, as noted by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, “If [mother] is Rh-negative and . . . baby is Rh-positive, [mother’s] body will react to the baby’s blood as a foreign substance. [Mother’s] body will create antibodies (proteins) against the baby’s Rh-positive blood . . . . Rh incompatibility is more likely to cause problems in second or later pregnancies [when] Rh antibodies can cross the placenta and attack the baby’s red blood cells . . . lead[ing] to hemolytic anemia in the baby.”
Luckily, if an incompatibility is found early on, there is a prenatal treatment (Rh immune globulin) that will prevent any problems before they start. This works by introducing antibodies that will attach to Rh-positive red blood cells. This effectively makes it so the mother’s immune system won’t detect and then try to destroy them.
Going back to Harrison, when the discovery was made about Harrison’s blood, he agreed to undergo extensive tests and experiments that eventually led to the development of a vaccine called Anti-D. Harrison said he was eager to help but some precautions were taken in case something happened to him during the testing. “They insured me for a million dollars so I knew my wife Barbara would be taken care of. I wasn’t scared. I was glad to help,” Harrison said in a 2010 interview.
Besides letting himself be used as a guinea-pig in the development of the Anti-D vaccine, Harrison has donated an extreme amount of plasma. Plasma can be given every two to three weeks, unlike whole blood, which is only recommended to be donated every six weeks. This allowed Harrison to donate 1,173 times in the around six decades he did it, only stopping in 2018 because Australian policy does not allow people over 81 to donate.
In all, it is estimated Harrison has helped save about 2-2.5 million people so far through his actions. Among that number, his own daughter, Tracey, had to have the Anti-D injection after the birth of her son.
We will leave off this one with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson on a successful life, which these former individuals failed at, and the latter succeeded: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of the intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the beauty in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that one life has breathed easier because you lived here. This is to have succeeded.””Expand
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