The year was 1952 and 11-year-old Jari Zickuhr sat waiting outside the health room at Trinity Lutheran School in Hobart, Ind. After a few minutes, another student — her cousin Patricia — emerged from the room, walked across the hall and promptly passed out.
It was now Jari’s turn to have a Burgess VibroTool pressed against her bare skin as dozens of tiny vibrating needles tattooed her blood type on her back.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to be fine,’” Jari said. “That didn’t scare me.”
She did not pass out, and to this day Jari — a retired teacher who lives in Hyattsville, Md. — sports an “O+” on the left side of her torso, about halfway up.
Over the last two weeks, Answer Man has written about identity tags that were made available to students in the District and around the country in the early 1950s. Fear of a Soviet A-bomb attack ran high then, and civil defense officials wanted to be prepared. Some thought it prudent to know everyone’s blood type. A plan to tattoo Americans across the nation never came to fruition, and yet Jari has a ⅜ -inch tattoo on her side. Why?
A paper published in 2008 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology explores this odd aspect of the Cold War. The idea at first wasn’t just to put blood into people who might need it, but to take it out of people who could give it.
During the Korean War, much of America’s blood supply was shipped overseas, creating a shortage at home, explained the paper’s authors, Elizabeth K. Wolf and Anne E. Laumann. Efforts were launched across the United States to determine the blood type of as many Americans as possible as a way of creating “walking blood banks” that could be bled should the need arise.
A secondary benefit, of course, would be the ability to transfuse victims more quickly.
Andrew C. Ivy, a Chicago doctor and head of that city’s Medical Civil Defense Committee, became a leading proponent of the scheme. Ivy had served as an American Medical Association consultant at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, where it’s likely he learned that members of the Waffen-SS had their blood type tattooed on the inner arm or chest.
Wrote Wolf and Laumann in their paper: “It is probable that seeing these tattoos at Nuremberg influenced Dr. Ivy to use tattooing as a means for identification of blood types.”
While Chicago never carried out Ivy’s plan, a county in nearby Indiana did institute Operation Tat-Type. In January 1952, schools in Lake County began blood-typing and tattooing students on the left side above the waist. (The arm was rejected as a location. Limbs could be lost in an explosion.) Thousands of residents were tattooed.
Around the same time, Omar Budge launched a similar program in Utah’s Cache and Rich counties, where he practiced medicine with his brother, Oliver. Oliver had been a student at Northwestern Medical School while Ivy taught there. Perhaps he had been following Ivy’s civil defense exploits.
Utah is heavily Mormon. The Bible contains an admonition against tattoos, but a Mormon theologian pronounced that they were permitted when placing “a blood type or an identification number in an obscure place.”
Though other communities considered tat-typing, these were the only two to embrace it so heavily.
There were several reasons it didn’t catch on, Wolf and Laumann wrote. Tattooing was expensive and took time. The tattoos would be difficult to see on burned skin. Doctors preferred to pre-type the blood just before donation, rather than trust a tattoo. Finally, the blood crisis ended when the Korean War did.
Like Jari, Bill Lowery grew up in Lake County, Ind. He received his tattoo at James Eads Elementary School in Munster. He remembers that the newly tattooed students got a treat: the rest of the afternoon off.
“It hurt,” said Bill, 75, of Alexandria. “That was part of the thing that made it kind of heroic.”
Can you imagine how parents would react today?
“There would probably be a furor about it,” Bill said. “This was a much more innocent and scarier time, though how it could be scarier than today, I don’t know. Everybody was worried about the atomic threat.”
Tattooing a child with his or her blood type “seemed very progressive, I think,” Bill said. “There was no fear in it. It was not an invasion of privacy.”
While Jari’s tattoo remains relatively intact, Bill said his has become a “blob.”
Answer Man found it a bit unsettling that Andrew Ivy was apparently inspired by the Nazis, who of course not only tattooed soldiers but concentration camp inmates. But it turned out that wasn’t the weirdest thing about Ivy. Ivy’s endorsement of a miracle cancer cure supposedly made from horse blood cost him his reputation. And the person who helped uncover the truth was a scientist in Washington.
Next week: Alma Levant Hayden and the case of Krebiozen quackery.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.