Blood Work by Holly Tucker

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

“In December 1667, maverick physician Jean Denis transfused calf’s blood into one of Paris’s most notorious madmen. Days later, the madman was dead and Denis was framed for murder. A riveting exposé of the fierce debates, deadly politics, and cutthroat rivalries behind the first transfusion experiments, Blood Work takes us from dissection rooms in palaces to the streets of Paris, providing an unforgettable portrait of an era that wrestled with the same questions about morality and experimentation that haunt medical science today.”

I like reading about quirky, little-known incidents and events and characters in history that influenced our world in ways we never knew about. Jean Denis’s transfusion experiments are just such an oddity of history. Like the space race, there was a 17th century transfusion race between the French and the British (with a few Italians thrown in for good measure) to see who would be the first to successfully transfuse blood into a human being. Unfortunately for the subjects of these experiments, the blood being shared came from animals, and the transfusions were performed under unsanitary and rather primitive conditions. The human recipients, who were being transfused to cure them of madness not a blood disease, probably didn’t actually get much in the way of blood actually transfused and generally died.

Ms. Tucker draws a comparison between these early experiments in medical transfusion and the twenty-first controversy over stem cells and genetic engineering and cloning. However, her final verdict about the lesson we are to draw from the failure of Denis’s transfusions is unclear. Is it that animals and humans shouldn’t mix? Or that the established medical authorities can be short-sighted and self-serving in their opposition to new methods of treatment? Ms. Tucker seems to say that the 17th century opposition to blood transfusion is akin to to 21st century opposition to stem cell research and that both are narrow-minded and obstructionist with no basis in fact or morality. However, the French man who was (maybe) transfused did die, and Denis, in hindsight, didn’t have a clue what he was doing. My “lesson” is that we had better be really, really careful when we start experimenting on human beings, notwithstanding all the wonders of blood transfusion and modern medicine.

There’s also a murder mystery thrown into the mix, and although the mystery added some suspense to the story, it was the least satisfying and interesting part of the book. If you’re interested in science and medicine and history mixed, you might want to try this one out. Just don’t accept all of Ms. Tucker’s conclusions and comparisons at face value.

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