Book Review – Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine & Murder in the Scientific Revolution

I could not put down Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine & Murder in the Scientific Revolution by Holly Tucker an associate professor at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health and Society.  After hearing an interview with Tucker on a Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, I knew I had to check this book out from the library.

Blood Work chronicles the fascinating story of the first transfusions in the seventeenth century particularly the first human blood transfusion by Jean-Baptiste Denis. Tucker explores not only the methods by which this transfusion took place, bringing to life an incredible leap in medicine, but she delves into the politics and histories of both England in France in that era.  She sets the stage for Denis’ and other scientists’ experiments amidst the rise of France’s Sun King – Louis XIV – and the instability of an England damaged by plague and fire, with each country seeking to build and prove their strength, genius, and superiority.

The history of these two nations alone is fascinating, but then she takes the reader into the world of medicine, eliciting ethical arguments that continue today.  As Tucker says as she watched George W. Bush’s 2006 State of the Union Address, “History was repeating itself.”

Richard Lower conducted the first dog-to-dog transfusion experiment in 1665.  In 1667, Jean-Baptiste Denis performed the first animal-to-human transfusion between a fifteen-year-old boy and a lamb.  Tucker presents the incredible details of these and other experiments re-counting the gruesomeness of the techniques in an age without anesthesia.  The rudimentary instruments and the macabre curiosity of the scientists are astounding to read of in this modern age of medicine. But all was in pursuit of something we take for granted and has saved so many lives.

In the 1660’s, medical science still held fast to theories of “humors” or the idea that illnesses were caused by the imbalance of different bodily fluids.  And bloodletting was a common practice to rid a person of the specific humors causing their ailments.  So why would one want to transfuse blood?  These doctors were not concerned with blood loss obviously, so they were not transfusing to replace lost blood.  Rather, they both wanted to simply investigate how bodies worked and wondered if perhaps introducing the blood of another animal would change the humors of their ill patients.  In Denis’ case, he wanted to cure a “madman” – a once “perfectly mannered and well-dressed valet” for the nobles who developed a mental illness l=such that he was often naked in the streets or muttering incomprehensibly. Doctors experimenting with blood transfusion thought that the blood from an animal like a lamb would have “cooling effects.”  Under the theory that imbalanced humors were to blame for illness, they felt that madness and other ailments like fevers were caused by the blood being too hot.  Thus if they could rid the body of the “hot” blood and replace it with the blood of a lamb, they hoped to see improved health.

Though the initial transfusions seemed successful, the madman died and murder accusations arose.  Blood transfusions would not be tried again until 1818.

These scientists were investigating uncharted territories that carried ethical questions about, as Tucker concludes, what it means to be human.  Mixing animal blood with human blood left some in the seventeenth century with nightmares about chimeras – half monkey-half human beings arising out of mixed blood.  Such mixing, some believed, would corrupt the human soul and must be stopped.  Before chuckling at such ignorant fears, we must recognize that such fears still exist as we research embryonic stem cells.

In President Bush’s 2006 State of the Union Address that prompted Tucker to write Blood Work, he called for “legislation to prohibit the most egregious abuses of medical research: Human cloning in all its forms; creating or implanting embryos for experiments; creating human-animal hybrids; and buying, selling, or patenting human embryos.”  Like those imagining chimeras from blood transfusion, the president echoed fears of embryonic stem cell research that many still hold.  He continued to voice his religious beliefs stating “Human life is a gift from our Creator, and that gift should never be discarded, devalued, or put up for sale.”   With these words and his political ambition, embryonic stem cell research  was stalled for years in the belief that such research was “devaluing” human life.

Religious beliefs and political ambition impact science in every era from the space race to the invention of robotics to stem cell research.  Today we controversially culture embryonic stem cells and clone cells and experiment with these cells to see if they can heal us.  We have great hope to gain new insights, but cannot know what our findings will bring.  As we investigate these cells, we wonder whether these cells are already human beings?  Will we create clones to be our disposable donors (see the book – Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro)?  Will putting human cells in animal bodies or vice-versa create human-animal hybrids?  The questions are seemingly endless but ultimately we all ask the same question – who are we?

In every era we strive to understand the body and thus what makes us us.  We create robots to mimic the movements of man and understand how to treat injuries.  We create computer systems that reason (i.e. Watson).  And we wonder what might happen if a robot can move and think like a human, are they human?  (questions explored introduced to me by Isaac Asimov’s writings on robots) We transfuse humans with blood from another.  And we wonder if that blood from the other becomes part of us or transforms us into the other?

We will forever face questions of who we are and what separates us from all that surrounds us. These questions inspire us to curiously seek the truth through scientific endeavors.  But it is also the question that gives us hesitation as we fear what might be, fears we find were ignorant in hindsight.

Blood Work is an exceptional telling of the first blood transfusions and the history, politics, and ethics of English and French cultures of that time (as Tucker solves a centuries old murder mystery).  But it is also a telling of every scientific revolution.  Cultures may evolve (or devolve) to an extent, but in any age religious and ethical concerns and political ambitions will provide obstacles to the scientific discoveries that will change our world.

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One Response to Book Review – Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine & Murder in the Scientific Revolution

  1. […] Blood Work: A Tale of medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution by Holly Tucker (see my review here) […]

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