World’s most prolific blood donor – dubbed ‘man with the golden arm’ – retires after saving 2.4 million babies despite being scared of needles

One of the world’s most prolific blood donors has made his final plasma benefaction after helping save the lives of 2.4 million babies – despite being scared of needles.

Retired Australian office worker James Harrison, 81, felt a duty to aid others by donating blood after his own life was saved from an emergency lung operation at just 14 years old.

But it wasn’t until a decade later that the true value of the dad-of-one’s blood was discovered, when doctors found out an antibody was flowing in his veins which could prevent a deadly immune disease in newborns.

Since then the dad-of-one has donated an incredible 1,117 bags of blood, including to his own daughter which saved the life of his two grandchildren, all while determinedly looking away when the needle enters his arm.

Last Friday [May 11], James, from New South Wales’ Central Coast, made his final donation at the Town Hall centre in Sydney’s CBD surrounded by mothers who came to thank him for his service after doctors advised him he was getting too old to continue.

James, dubbed ‘the man with the golden arm’ said: “After my life was saved, I decided I would help others where I can. I started donating as soon as I could.

“But it wasn’t until the medical breakthrough that doctors realised my plasma had the Anti-D. It felt good to be told I was one-of-a-kind.

“One plasma donation can save 18 lives, so 40 minutes of your time can be a lifetime for someone else.

“It doesn’t hurt to donate. I don’t like needles though, I’ve never watched one go in. I just look at the nurses or the bed next to me.”

In the 1960s, hemolytic disease (HDN) – which causes pregnant women’s blood to attack their unborn baby’s blood cells – was killing thousands of Australian babies every year.

Pic by Tara Delia / Australian Red Cross Blood/Caters News

But groundbreaking research in 1966 discovered James’ blood produced a rare combination of RhD-negative blood and Rh+ antibodies which could be given to pregnant women to prevent the blood disorder.

In the 50 years since, two million women have been treated under the Anti-D programme, and it has saved the lives of 2.4 million babies born in Australia.

James’ plasma was so valuable to medical science that his life was even insured by medics for $1 million AUD.

He said: “When doctors told me the Anti-D would be the lifeblood for these mothers, I was lost for words.

Pic by Tara Delia / Australian Red Cross Blood/Caters News

“They said as a result, the number of babies suffering would change dramatically.”

James, who was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1999, was recently advised by the Blood Service to throw in the towel after surpassing the donor age limit.

Now, he is calling on more Australians to join the Anti-D program, which currently has just 160 donors who have the rare antibody in their blood.

James said: “I was sad, I would have like to have kept going but I reached the retiring age.

“On Friday, we had a party with all the mothers and it was very touching to see.

“The need for blood is ever increasing. It’s something that can’t be manufactured.

Pic by Tara Delia / Australian Red Cross Blood/Caters News

“It would be great to see more people getting involved.”

The Australian Red Cross Blood Service has today also issued a call for more male donors to follow in James’ footsteps.

Spokesperson Jemma Falkenmire said: “Australia owes a big thank you to James Harrison.

“Australia became the first country in the world to be self-sufficient in the supply of Anti-D, and cases of HDN are rare.

“Medications like Anti-D are a life giving intervention for thousands of Australian mums, but they are only available because men like James give blood.

“We encourage the partners and friends of all new mothers to think about donating blood, just one donation helps ensure someone has the chance to be a mother.”