History of the Service

Early History of Blood Transfusion

The pioneer of blood transfusion in Northern Ireland was Dr Thomas H Houston, later Sir Thomas Houston, who was also responsible for the early development of the whole discipline of clinical pathology (particularly haematology and microbiology). Dr Houston had gained considerable experience of treating casualties in the First World War with blood transfusion and he established a voluntary Blood Transfusion Service at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, later to be called the Belfast Blood Transfusion Service. Blood was provided by a small panel of a few hundred voluntary donors, mainly organised through the police. In those days all aspects of blood transfusion, including administration to patients, were carried out by Dr Houston and his team in the laboratory.

The amount of blood transfusion was still limited but a further, major stimulus occurred with the onset of the Second World War and the Northern Ireland government initiated an emergency Blood Transfusion Service in the Royal Hospital, Belfast under the direction of Sir J H Biggart (Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Queen’s University for 27 years) and by Dr L A L Johnston in Londonderry. During the War blood donations increased six-fold and played an important part in the treatment of casualties in the Belfast blitz in 1941. However, most of the increased blood was used to treat civilians for a variety of medical and surgical conditions. This led to a realisation of the importance of having a blood transfusion service available to all acute hospitals and the NIBTS was established by the Ministry of Health in November 1946.

Organisation and Accommodation of NIBTS

Although under the umbrella of the NIBTS, for a long period donor recruitment and blood collection was organised and located separately from the laboratory aspects of blood transfusion (until 1970). The laboratories were initially housed at the RVH and directed by Dr Clare Huth, then moved to Belfast City Hospital (1961) and then to a refurbished centre in Durham Street, Belfast (1970) and the laboratories and blood donor organisation were amalgamated into a single organisation under the direction of Colonel T E Field (successor to Dr Huth).

Donor organisation began at the Ministry of Health in Ormeau Avenue, Belfast initially under Mr F W Hazlett, a distinguished figure in Irish rugby. It then moved to Howard Street (1953) and then joined the laboratories at Durham Street in 1970.

In 1995 the NIBTS relocated to a new purpose-designed transfusion centre sited in the campus of Belfast City Hospital. In the same year the Service was established as an independent Agency responsible to the Northern Ireland Health and Social Services Executive. Dr L Blakiston-Houston was appointed Chairman of the Agency and Dr W M McClelland as Chief Executive/Medical Director, having been Director of the Service since 1980.

Over the past 50 years the number of blood donations have increased from 6,000 per year to over 60,000 per year in addition to over 4,000 apheresis donations collected at the Headquarters Unit. Most donations were collected by mobile teams of which there are now three, two based in Belfast and one based in Omagh, which covers the West of the Province.

The ‘Troubles’

The history of the NIBTS cannot avoid some reference to the effect of the ‘Troubles’. The choice of Durham Street as the location for the reorganised NIBTS in 1970 turned out to be an unfortunate one as the site was close to areas of civil strife. The peak intensity of the Troubles was in 1970/72 and during this period the Transfusion Centre was directly affected by bombs and bomb scares and had to be evacuated on a number of occasions. The most serious incident was in 1984 when, inside the building, a senior member of the laboratory staff was shot several times and critically injured. While usage of blood related to the ‘Troubles’ has been a small proportion of the total there has been a modest but noticeable reduction in red cell usage since the ceasefire in 1994.

The Pelican

The pelican has been the emblem of the Blood Transfusion Services in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland since their establishment. The pelican is an ancient Christian symbol which relates to the belief that it fed its young with blood drawn from its own breast. The following hymnic quotation is from a contribution to the liturgy of the Byzantine Church by Romanos Melodos around 5th Century AD ‘Just like a pelican thou lord wounded on thy side, thy children did revive by dripping blood on them from the fountains of life’.