One of the joys of studying the history of science is finding an amazing story tucked away and forgotten in the historical documents, and bringing it to the attention of a larger community.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.