A Quick Review of Holly Tucker’s Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution

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This will need to be a brief review, as my newly-reconstituted work schedule requires me to go to bed early some nights, including tonight. But that’s OK – all I really need to tell you is that this book is a readable, layperson-friendly, and fascinating look at the early stages of blood transfusion in the second half of the 17th century. Small groups of scientists in both England and France were working independently to transfuse blood, usually from animals to animals or from animals to humans. If you’re squeamish about blood or about animal cruelty, parts of this book will be a difficult read, because of course the animal subjects in these experiments suffered terribly – and Tucker includes drawings from the era – dogs and calves and sheep hog-tied to people’s dining-room tables and so forth – to illustrate her narrative.

Of course many 17th-century types had moral objections to blood transfusion, especially in France. The Protestant Reformation officially ended in 1648, but tensions between Catholics and Protestants were still simmering in these years. As a rule, medical experimentation was considered a Protestant endeavor. Catholic beliefs dictated that all medical procedures should be dictated by long-deceased experts like Galen and Aristotle. According to these ancient authorities – whose works were the only ones allowed to be taught at medical schools in Catholic France – the stomach makes blood out of the food people eat. Then the blood takes a short one-way journey from the stomach to the heart, where the heart “burns” it for fuel to keep our bodies going. Tucker never addressed my primary question, which was how Galen would have explained that we bleed when we are cut on the head, foot, and other parts of the body that are nowhere near the stomach and the heart. The medical approach to blood, then, was to attempt to keep it from getting too hot. Galen is also the genius behind the humoral theory of medicine – you know, the idea that our bodies are supposed to sustain a balance of the four “humors” – blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile – and that illness is the result of imbalance among these four substances. This is why bloodletting was such a widespread medical treatment – it was prescribed every time a patient was determined to be troubled by excessive blood. Ancient, medieval, and early modern doctors also used a wide variety of emetics and purgatives for the same reason – to rid the body of the other three humors as needed.

In the late 17th century, Harvey had already published his theory about the circulation of blood, but many in the medical establishment – especially Catholics – refused to accept his findings. However, a small group of scientists in each of the two countries did start to experiment with transfusion. The problem, though, is that in addition to all the silliness I explained in the last paragraph, many thinkers of the era also believed that blood was the physical manifestation of the soul. People assumed that after a blood transfusion, a patient would have taken in part of the soul of the blood donor. If a large enough quantity of blood was transfused, they thought, a person would actually undergo physical changes, becoming less like themselves and more like their donor – this was especially troubling since most blood donors at that time were not human. One of the more comic moments in the book is the response of a mental patient who received a transfusion (mental patients were often the subjects of medical experiments in early modern Europe, since it was difficult to persuade people in their right minds to volunteer) and then refused to undergo another transfusion because he insisted that he had been turned into a cow as a result of the first transfusion. He looked and sounded like a human to the experimenters, mind you, but in his own eyes he was now a cow who ate grass and needed to be milked. Not that the doctors had any particular qualms about experimenting on cows, mind you.

This book is also about the interpersonal politics of this chapter in medical history. I won’t go into elaborate detail here, but Tucker spends a good deal of time on the rivalries among the experimenters, the correspondence between rival scientists back and forth across the channel, and the lengths a few anti-transfusion scientists went to discredit their more open-minded colleagues. I enjoyed the book a good deal – and, to be honest, would have been happy with significantly more medical detail, even though I am not a scientist myself. If you enjoy medical history and have a strong stomach for vivisection, I recommend this book highly.

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This entry was posted in Authors, Holly Tucker, Non-fiction - History, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Science, Reviews by Bethany, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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