Percy Lane Oliver was born on 11th April 1878 at the home of his grandparents, Paul and Margery Curnow, in Fish Street, St. Ives. Paul Curnow was a blacksmith and relief keeper for Godrevy Lighthouse in St. Ives Bay, as well as a highly respected lifeboat cox'n, whose honors included a medal from Emperor Napoleon III. At the time of Percy's birth the Oliver family lived in Maidenhead (Berkshire, England), where his father and mother were teachers. The family moved to London around 1883, and in 1892 Percy won a Science and Art Scholarship. In 1893 he passed first in the Civil Service Examination out of 449 candidates, but was rejected by the Medical Board. Following this disappointment, he got a job as assistant librarian with Camberwell Borough Council, London, in 1893, and in 1901 transferred to the Town Hall staff, where he remained until his retirement. He was a founding member of the Camberwell Division of the British Red Cross and became its honorary secretary in 1910.
During the First World War he served in the Royal Naval Air Service, stationed at Crystal Palace, and during his off-duty and leave periods, he and his wife engaged in considerable work in connection with refugees, organizing and financially managing four refugee hostels in Camberwell. For this he was awarded the O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) in 1918, the presentation being made by King George V personally.
In October 1921, in his capacity as honorary secretary of the Camberwell Branch of the Red Cross, he received a telephone call from nearby King's College Hospital. They were in urgent need of a blood donor and sought his help. He and a few colleagues went to the hospital, and from them Sister Linstead, a Red Cross worker, was chosen, becoming the first voluntary blood donor. The results of this exercise so impressed Oliver that mainly with the help of his wife he set about devising and organizing a system for a panel of donor volunteers. The donor's health and blood details were checked by the hospital and kept on record cards in his home, where there was continuous telephone cover. In the first year there were four members of the panel and they had one call. Five years later there were 400 members and over 700 calls. Oliver was convinced that organized panels of volunteer donors were the answer, and he worked hard at setting up similar panels, particularly in London, with the help of groups such as St. John Ambulance, TOC H, and the Rover Scouts. To cope with the organization and the paperwork it was also necessary to move to a larger house -- 5 Colyton Road, Camberwell. Much of his free time was spent travelling around the country, explaining the system, and encouraging the formation of yet more local groups of volunteers.
Although on its inception in 1921 Oliver called it the London Blood Transfusion Service, it was really a voluntary donor service for local hospitals. It progressed to the stage where the official support of the British Red Cross Society was considered essential. This was forthcoming and in 1926 it became the British Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service, later changed to the Greater London Red Cross B.T. Service and eventually developed into the National Blood Transfusion Service. General hospitals were not charged for the service and no payment was ever made to, or expected by, the donors. The expenses of running the organization from the house in South London were met by charging private clinics, by grants from institutions, and by Oliver's own efforts.
Oliver had the support of many eminent surgeons and doctors, but there were others who resented this intrusion into medical preserves by a layman. Many donors had to keep their involvement secret from families and employers, and as recently as 1940 Percy Oliver was still travelling the country trying to dispel apprehensions and encourage the supply of donors and the setting up of panels. In February of that year he returned to St. Ives where he gave an illustrated lecture at which the area secretary of TOC H asked those present "... not to stand in the way of would-be donors, but rather to go out and radiate the wonderful work that had been done and was being done by blood transfusion ..."
Oliver's work attracted attention worldwide and many countries sent representatives who sought and acted upon his advice on setting up similar organizations. In 1937, an exhibition at a meeting of the Voluntary Blood Donors Association featured the idea of stored blood which, although originally used by Canadian doctors in the First World War, had been brought to the fore in the Spanish Civil War. This was to become the basis of the war-time blood bank which Oliver helped to create at Luton in 1939. Surprisingly, Oliver received no official recognition for his work in the development of voluntary blood donor panels, although in later years he was invited back to Buckingham Palace to talk with the King about his work.
Percy Lane Oliver died on April 16, 1944, but his achievements are not forgotten. A memorial consisting of a portrait and a panel with an appropriate inscription was unveiled in the entrance hall of the hematology department of King's College Hospital, London, in 1972 by Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Gloucester. A framed copy of this is in every Regional Transfusion Centre in Britain, and another is in the Donor Centre in Rome, bearing a suitable translation. In 1979 the Greater London Council provided an appropriate plaque on the house in South London where so much of Oliver's work was undertaken and where his daughter, Mrs. Marjorie Hardy, still lives. Those who worked with him established The Oliver Memorial Fund that each year makes an award to a medical or lay nominee in recognition for outstanding service in the field of blood transfusion. This is a prestigious award and recognized as such by those in the business. The Fund also offers modest grants to young scientists involved in appropriate research projects.
Photo: From RED GOLD: THE EPIC STORY OF BLOOD, courtesy of the Oliver family.