Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution by Holly Tucker is a book that I first read almost 10 years ago. I got it as a gift from a dear friend, for my birthday during the time I was a student at School of Medicine (as you can guess, I decided to start anew and switch to Biology). However, this book has always stayed with me, not only because it was the first book of this genre I’ve read – I loved it because I thought it was the perfect mix of history, medicine, and macabre.
Blood Work follows a fascinating tale of the history of human transfusion, something what in today’s world we almost take for granted. Back in high school, we learned all about Rh factor and blood types (and how there is a possibility of A and B parent having an O or AB child) and voluntary blood donations are common occurrence in my country. Despite all this, I never wondered when did the actual blood transfusion procedures start and how did physicians know whose blood to use.
In the book, we follow Jean-Baptiste Denis, a 17th century French physician who administrated first documented transfusion. Since this transfusion included using sheep’s blood, it was called a xenotransfusion, which is a term that describes blood transfusion from one species to another. This experiment was successful, probably due to small amount of transfused blood and, I dare say, luck, since at the time, blood groups and agglutination were not known facts.
Denis’ last transfusion experiment is, however, the one we learn about in a detail – after trying to treat an illness of psychiatric nature, and transferring a large amount of calf blood, his patient dies, and he is accused of murder. Denis was ultimately acquitted (with a true crime worthy twist in the case), but all further transfusions were banned, first by French government, then by English and even the Pope.
Blood Work doesn’t focus solely on this event – the writer masterfully describes political events of the time, both in France (rivalry with another physician, Henri-Martin de la Martinière, tensions in French Academy of Sciences founded by Louis XIV) and abroad (a competition between French and English Academies), as well as the religious ones (“playing God”, fear that this kind of transfusion could produce some sort of half-human half-animal creature). Furthermore, as Neil Blumberg wrote in his review for Journal of Clinical Investigations, these kinds of experiments were primary conducted due to the belief that transfusion could treat, or even cure, mental illness, sometimes we now know is not possible.
Lastly, it doesn’t actually matter if you have health and/or science background to find this book interesting, as long as your’re interested in history and historical non-fiction. Blood Work offers a captivating look on the beginnings of one of the most important medical procedures in the world and does it so vividly you almost feel like you’re transported to Paris, in the middle of the scientific revolution.
I would very much liked to hear your opinion – did you read this book, and if yes, did you like it as much as I did?
Do you have similar book recommendations? Please let me know in the comments 🙂