My mom got her first and only tattoo at the age of 9 in 1951.
No, she didn’t run a loan shark business, her grandmother did that. Or disappear cars for the Chicago mob, her father did that. Or mastermind a gang of hoodlums, actually that one is true… she was definitely the ringleader.
The truth is a story you’ve never heard. And that story is pretty bizarre.
In 1951 tattoos were considered fringe. Most people, especially religious Jews like my mother’s family, did not get tattoos. And no one in 1951 had a business that specialized in or allowed the tattooing of, American children. Except for the school systems in Lake County, Indiana and Cache and Rich Counties in Utah. If you lived there, then you might already know this story.
In 1951, a small pilot program was launched in Indiana and Utah as a civilian defense measure to aid in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.
The idea was simple: If a bomb dropped, people would need medical attention.
Seems logical so far…
They would need a fast and accurate system to help administer blood transfusions. Blood type and Rh factor (a newly discovered slightly important detail in the world of blood transfusions) needed to be readily available to emergency personnel.
You can lose a paper ID card. Dog tags can come off your neck. Limbs can easily get blown off. Blood typing needed a universal and permanent placement. They had just the ticket.
Here’s where logic leaves the story.
Did you beat me to the punch line yet? Children were the guinea pigs for this test program.
Schools sent home permission slips, some with a fee of fifty cents or a buck, allowing the school nurse to tattoo their children.
I’m not kidding.
The left side of the torso, under the arm, on the rib cage, was the best placement for the blood-type tattoo. Reason being, you might still be able to live if your arms or legs were blown off as long as your torso remained intact. And if your torso had the blood-type tattoo, well then, Bob’s your uncle! You could patiently wait for help to arrive, confident knowing you’d get a proper blood transfusion.
My grandparents, both practicing Jews from long lines of Jewish ancestry and both very aware of the Holocaust, apparently decided it was a good idea to get their daughter tattooed. Their “reasons why” are lost to history.
And they weren’t the only ones who signed those permission slips.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of children, lined up in nurse’s offices in Indiana and Utah. Each one listening to classmates scream and cry from behind the privacy screens. I bet more than one peed themselves and more than a few passed out. No one died, so that was promising.
You might be wondering about the safety protocols for the application of the tattoos.
The antiseptic ink used in the machines probably wasn’t preventing contamination or infections, but it sounded good. The tattoo “branding” machines used needle templates to push the blood-type tattoo into the skin. The machine pushed the ink and needles into the skin all at once. Let’s not forget that all those needles would need more than a simple wash before reuse.
Did the nurses perform proper cleaning procedures, or did they just make separate lines for each blood type so they could use the same needle because, you know, antiseptic ink?
And don’t forget to hold still! Sucked to be those kids who, a little too late, thought better of the whole thing and tried to squirm away. They ended up with several tattoo attempts until one was legible enough to satisfy the nurse.
All the reasons why this wasn’t a good idea were the likely reasons why it was stopped.
It only took a year for the “powers that be” to realize that they were advocating child abuse and that experimenting on our youngest population wasn’t the best idea. As a result, the program was stopped and was quietly put away somewhere inside of a deep file cabinet next to all the other brilliant but not so great ideas our collective medical minds have had to offer.
It’s probably sitting in between doctors recommending heroin as a cure for cocaine addiction and prescribing Thalidomide to pregnant women.
My mom’s tattoo, which is O+, didn’t give her too much grief. She simply told people it was the initials of an old boyfriend, Otto Turnbull. I think she liked the air of mystery it gave her. Besides, no one would believe her if she told the truth. This truth is just too bizarre.
*4/7/2019 Since publishing this article, I have been interviewed by Ryan Warner of Colorado Matters on CPR (Colorado Public Radio) and Ian Sanders of Cold War Conversations Podcast.
In those interviews I was able to expand the story, the history and the uncomfortable Nazi connection to blood type tattoos. These interviews add a whole new dimension to the story. I hope you find enjoy them as well.
My interview with Ryan Warner of Colorado Matters on CPR (My interview starts at 10 min 12 sec)
Listener review: I’d like to compliment you for the original take on episode 51. A truly incredible and possibly disturbing topic, handled with care, compassion and deep respect – as well as a solid dose of healthy humor, made this a topnotch listening experience. Keep up the good work!”