Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution
by Holly Tucker


W. W. Norton & Co., 2011. ISBN 978-0-393-07055-2.
Reviewed by Judy King
Posted on 09/12/2011

Nonfiction: History/Current Events; Nonfiction: Science

Like a lot of writers, Holly Tucker had an idea for a book long before she had time to sit down and start writing. When she did find the time, the result, Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution, was worth the wait. This book is not just a historical account, it's a cautionary tale as well.

In her prologue, Tucker likens the controversy surrounding the earliest experiments with blood transfusions, and later (20th century) concerns about it, to current debates about embryonic stem cell research. In the early days of experiments with blood transfusions, it was feared that transfusing blood of another species into a human could result in a chimera—a creature that was a combination of traits from both species. Yet it was unthinkable to use the blood of another human.

Later, when it was proven safe to transfer blood from one human to another, many people were concerned that mixing blood of two different races would be dangerous. Do you see the similarity to the stem cell controversy? Tucker did. She had been listening to George W. Bush's State of the Union address in January, 2006, when he called for "'legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research [including] creating human-animal hybrids.'" "It's why," she says, "I knew the story not only should be told, it had to be told."

She has told the story skillfully.

Tucker's book graphically contrasts the world of medicine that was with the world of medicine that is. It's hard to imagine what it must have been like in the 17th century, contemplating transfusing a calf's blood into a human and wondering if it would turn the person into a half-human/half-bovine monster.

For physicians of that time, removing blood from a person to try and cure them of whatever malady they suffered from was standard practice. The idea of putting blood back in a person, whatever the source, was ludicrous to them.

It's also hard not to get pulled into the story of the characters in 17th-century Britain and France, as they vied for the prize of being the first to successfully transfer blood from one living being into another, presumably for the purpose of curing some ill. Tucker, whose research specialty is French history as well as the history of medicine, brings the subjects at hand vividly to life.

At that time Britain and France were bitter enemies. Serious scientists who wanted to collaborate or exchange information across the Channel had to resort to elaborate schemes to smuggle documents back and forth. Yet word did get through.

While some of the first experiments in transfusion were carried out in Britain using dogs as donor and recipient, it was in France where one zealously ambitious young physician, Jean-Baptiste Denis, set out to be the first to perform transfusions into humans. He had read everything he could about the procedure on dogs from translations of the smuggled-in letters from the British Royal Society. Denis' ambitions proved his undoing, though, as he became embroiled in a murder investigation when the notorious Parisian madman he used as his test subject died. (He had already alienated his British scientific counterparts by publishing a letter claiming that the origin of the idea for blood transfusions was irrefutably French.)

Shortly after that, all activities involving transferring blood from one living being into another were summarily outlawed, and another 150 years would pass before the idea would be revived and developed into the life-saving procedure it is today.

It's a colorful story of what lengths people would go to in their quest for social standing, professional acclaim, or royal favor, with scientific advancement seeming to be a side issue in the planning and scheming process. Making a name for themselves came first. All other considerations were secondary. While that is still undoubtedly the case for some in the present (and, in fairness, was not the case for every physician then,either,)

I like to think that most modern medical research is really all about helping people.


Holly Tucker is an associate professor at Vanderbilt University's Center for Medicine, Health, and Society and Department of French and Italian. She focuses her research on the history of medicine. She writes for publications including the Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, and Christian Science Monitor. Visit her website.

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