As It Happens

Meet the lifetime donor with the 'golden arm' who saved millions of lives

Every week for the past 62 years, Australian James Harrison has donated his blood which is urgently needed due to a rare antibody in his plasma. But at 81, he's been told to quit, to preserve his own health.

'It costs nothing — just a bit of time,' says the 81 year-old dubbed The Man with the Golden Arm

Australian James Harrison donates for the last time on Sunday in Sydney. (Reuters screenshot)

Read Story Transcript

Throughout his life, James Harrison has saved the lives of countless babies — and he did it all lying down.

For 62 years, he has donated blood on a weekly basis. He holds the Guinness World Record for the most donations made by an individual.

Shortly after he began donating, doctors discovered that Harrison's plasma is unique. It contains a rare and much-needed antibody, making him a nearly indispensable donor.

But at 81 years old, Harrison has had to stop donating to protect his own health. He spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off about making his final donation on Sunday. Here is a part of their conversation: 

James Harrison holding his Guinness World Records certificate for most blood donated by one person. (David Gray/Reuters)

James, how did it feel to make that final blood donation on Sunday?

Very sad. It was the end of an era. Sixty-two years of donating.

The party they put on with mothers and babies thanking me, it was really a heart-wrenching departure.

They also had balloons shaped in the numbers 1, 1, 7 [and] 3. What did that signify?

That signified the number of donations I've made in my lifetime — blood and plasma donations.

Who was giving you this big send-off?

The Red Cross — the blood bank service in Sydney. They're the ones that put the kibosh on me going any further. So they put it on probably to lessen the blow.

They did this because you are called "The Man With The Golden Arm"?

Yeah. 1,163 out of my right arm and 10 out of my left arm.

What is it that makes your blood so special?

I have an antibody called anti-D which is processed and given to mothers-to-be who are a negative-blood group with a positive-blood group partner.

The first child will be normal, but she releases into her system with the birth of that child a nasty antibody that floats around, and when she conceives the next time, it goes in and affects the unborn fetus.

So they get an injection after the first child, and sometimes a couple more during her pregnancy, and that baby will be born OK.

People have approached me and said, "Thank you for my seven children." ... One lady had 13 children.

That was a problem, the number of miscarriages happening, up until the time they discovered this anti-D antibody.

How did you contribute to saving all those babies?

Well, I had the anti-D right from the start. Apparently, I got it from a blood transfusion many years before.

I decided at that time that I'd become a full blood donor, to give back the blood that I had received during my operation.

In 1966, they asked would I take part in the trial for this new product called anti-D. Of course, I was very happy to.

It feels good. Because my life was saved by blood transfusions. I'm doing what I can. It costs nothing — a bit of time. And the thanks you get sort of makes you shiver.-James Harrison

And how many babies do you think have been saved because of this antibody in your blood?

Well, I didn't count them. But they tell me it's over two million. 

How does that make you feel to know that you have saved the lives of more than two million babies?

It feels good because my life was saved by blood transfusions. I'm doing what I can. It costs nothing — a bit of time —and the thanks you get sort of makes you shiver. 

My own daughter had to get an injection because she is negative and her husband is positive.

I've seen the result because my grandson is now 23 years old and at university.

It makes you feel good that you're doing something which costs nothing, really. Just time.

James Harrison wearing his Guinness World Record medal, at the presentation ceremony in Sydney in 2003. (REUTERS)

I understand you're afraid of needles?

Yes. I've never once watched the needle go into my arm. 

I look at the ceiling. I look at the nurses. I look at the other people in their beds. 

What will doctors do without you?

I don't know. Maybe they'll call me in for a re-run. Who knows?

There are other anti-D donors out there. So they'll just have to stretch it out, I imagine. They'll manage.

Written by Kevin Ball and Julian Uzielli. Interview produced by Julian Uzielli. Q&A edited for length and clarity.