One of the joys of studying the history of science is finding an amazing story tucked away and forgotten in the historical documents, and bringing it to the attention of a larger community. The real challenge, however, is making that story come to life in a way that can not only captivate a popular audience but enlighten them as well. With that in mind, I can say that Holly Tucker’s recently released non-fiction book Blood Work manages to both captivate and enlighten, and relays events so remarkable that it is hard to understand why they have remained obscure for so long.
The book tells the true story of the first animal-to-human blood transfusions, performed in the 1660s in England and Europe. These culminated in 1667 in Paris with a series of experiments performed by the rogue physician Jean-Baptiste Denis; the subject of the experiments was an infamous madman who was plucked from the streets against his will. Though the transfusions initially seemed successful, within days the madman had died, and the ensuing political fallout resulted in the suspension of all such studies for some 200 years. Most surprising, at the heart of the story is a conspiracy — and Denis’ opponents had no scruples against committing murder for the “greater good”.
The book is delightfully written and painstakingly researched. Professor Tucker does an excellent job making the world of 17th century England and France come alive, and pulls back the curtain on the inner workings of the machinations of the elite politicians, scientists and nobles of the era. There were strong religious and scientific concerns about the safety of transfusions, and these concerns rather ironically mirror the modern fears about “human-animal hybrids” created by genetic engineering. Denis ended up bucking the medical establishment (some of whose members were planning their own experiments) and made powerful enemies in the process; his stubbornness would quickly catch up with him.
The earlier chapters of Blood Work will possibly be a bit slow-going to some readers. There is a lot of history behind the critical events of the book, primarily the medical studies that preceded said events. This background material is essential to the narrative, but is not quite as compelling as the latter parts of the book.
Once the story gets going, however, it is practically impossible to stop reading. Events rapidly gain momentum, and history rushes towards a dark finale that comes to seem almost inevitable. As I said, though, there is a dark secret behind the publicly-known story, and Professor Tucker manages to extract that secret from the historical records. The revelations those records contain are quite amazing, so much so that it is hard to believe that the story is not fictional! When the full scope of the events, and their consequences for medical progress are grasped, the history in fact becomes a tragedy.
There is one other caveat worth mentioning. The story of early blood transfusion is also the story of animal experimentation, centuries before anyone seriously considered the feelings of animals — and long before anesthesia. The description of experiments on animals (again, essential to understanding the story) is not for the squeamish.
That being said, by the end of the book I was completely transfixed by the tale that was being told. Holly Tucker’s Blood Work shares an amazing story with great dexterity, and is well-worth reading.
I am sold. Highly compelling review!
Ive also got ” One Blood: The Death and Resurrection of Charles R. Drew on my list of things to read. Looks rather interesting as well.
Thanks for the comment! I’ll have to look at “one blood” as well.
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Wonderful Blood Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond. On blood piety and ’15th century ‘blood frenzy’
Completes the trinity. Thanks for the review I would have missed Blood Work otherwise. Hitting all three at the same time should be interesting.
The last thing I imagined I would be doing at 4am while riding out Hurricane Irene in Northern, NJ, is watching Book TV on C-Span2. I am a great fan of Book TV, however I switched to the channel by accident, while searching for The Weather Channel; I am delighted I did.
Holly Tucker was immediately engaging; I had no idea what subject she was speaking of, nor did I know the title of her book, yet her warmth and the passion and almost excitement she had for her subject was immediately infectious (perhaps ‘infectious’ is not the choice adjective when speaking of blood, but I was immediately hooked).
Never had I given much thought to the subject of blood outside the basic curiosity one has (why does blood look blue while running through the veins in our hands, but red when we get a cut, etc.). And I have never asked myself, “How and when were transfusions discovered and implemented?” Yet, again, Professor Tucker held my interest throughout her entire lecture; I found myself wishing the lecture would continue for another hour.
I have had 14 surgeries in the past 18 years: my neck has literally been reconstructed from titanium plates and screws, and cadaver bones. Said surgeries were primarily the result of three degenerative spinal diseases compounded by a car accident.
Professor Tucker posed a curious and most interesting question when she stated that 17th Century “nature philosophers” (doctors), politicians, and the church looked down upon blood transfusions because Galen and Hippocrates already gave all necessary information regarding the human body and that transfusions would, therefore, be a form of sacriledge (paraphrasing). She then asked what societies 300 years from now will think about our current political/religious ethical issues regarding stem cell research and cloning.
This piqued my interest even more because I surely would not be alive today if my neck could not have been reconstructed–even without said car accident, my neck would have eventually needed reconstruction at some point. If doctors and scientists had not pushed the boundaries of medicine, I simply would not be alive today.
Today, although I live in severe chronic pain from crushed nerve roots in my cervical spine, I am NOT paralyzed–nor dead–because “rogue” doctors and other brilliant minds decided to push the limits of science and medicine.
I realize this is a long comment, however, your review engaged my interest in Professor Tucker’s book even more than her lecture alone. I have always had great respect for every doctor who ever worked on me and saved my life, but now, from listening to Professor Tucker’s lecture, I have a new-found interest in the history of medicine, and because of your review of BLOOD WORK I have a definitive interest in reading the book. I want to know what the scandal regarding the transfusions by Denis is all about!
PS Your review was succinct and well written. Bravo!
You’re welcome, and thanks! Hope you enjoy the book!
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