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BLOOD WORK by Holly Tucker


A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution

by Holly Tucker

Pub Date: March 21st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-393-07055-2
Publisher: Norton

Lurid and often gruesome scientific history of blood transfusions in 17th-century France and England.

Tucker (History of Medicine/Vanderbilt Univ.; Pregnant Fictions: Childbirth and the Fairy Tale in Early Modern France, 2003) explains how ancient authorities taught that digested food becomes blood, which seeps into the heart and burns, and that breathing blows off fumes from the heart’s furnace. Renaissance anatomists corrected other ancient errors, but they worked from dead bodies, so it was 1628 before Englishman William Harvey correctly described the circulation of the blood, a controversial finding hotly debated for years. Tucker focuses on events during the 1660s when individuals in London and Paris performed a flurry of transfusions. At first they used dogs. Anesthesia was unknown, so readers may squirm at the author’s detailed descriptions. Although dog donors died, recipients seemed energized, so enthusiasts believed transfused blood would work wonders in humans. Tucker looks at Jean-Baptiste Denis, an ambitious young physician anxious to make a name for himself in Paris, who transfused dogs, horses, pigs and goats before becoming the first to use humans. In 1667, Denis created a sensation by twice transfusing calf’s blood into a madman, apparently curing him. He later relapsed and died under suspicious circumstances; the Parisian medical establishment considered it murder. In the trial that followed, Denis was acquitted, but authorities banned transfusions and interest faded and did not revive for 150 years.

Conceding that these experiments produced no useful knowledge, Tucker successfully presents them as a vivid historical controversy foreshadowing the current furor over cloning, in which advocates predict miraculous cures while opponents see a perverted tampering with nature.