Blood Work

If I might paraphrase Lady Macbeth, who mused sweetly upon one of her victims, "Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him," I would suggest that a delighted reader's first reaction upon finishing Holly Tucker's captivating, enlightening and mildly horrifying Blood Work might be, "Yet who would have thought the history of blood transfusion to have had so much sheer entertainment in it."

 

We benefit from Tucker's keen instincts as a historian about the riches lurking in this formerly neglected subject matter; her devilish ability to concoct something of a hypnotic Grand Guignol (warning to PETA members and other sensitive souls:  many, many dogs were harmed in the making of this book); and from her meticulous documentary researches and respect for science.  The result is a treat:  a solid dose of learning in a novelistic package, where a lesser writer might have presented only a dry account of some curious medical milestones.

 

Tucker's focus is France in the middle of the seventeenth century, a rich period indeed for cultural, political and scientific advance and turmoil.  Her vivid recreation of the era, full of sensory details, puts the reader smack-dab in the middle of Dumas-land.  Her chief protagonist—in a well-defined cast featuring scores of colorful individuals—is a doctor named Jean-Baptiste Denis, who performed the first transference of animal blood into human veins.  Needless to say, this bold, albeit misguided experiment ended well for no one, patient, doctor or medical establishment.  Tucker vigorously charts the scientific and personal reasons leading up to such an arterial leap of faith, venturing as far back into the past (1628) and as far abroad (William Harvey's England) as necessary, unweaving the tangled skein of reasoning and ambition surrounding Denis's mad-scientist pursuits.

 

Along with her trenchant examination of the era's rational discourse, intellectual trends and nascent R&D programs, we enjoy a more fantastical history of legends and folk beliefs concerning that essential red liquor that flows through all of us.  Tucker reminds us that this period still favored alchemy, and believed in the ancient reports from Pliny of dog-faced men and other marvels.  And of course, the notorious practice of bleeding a patient to adjust their humors was still de rigueur.  Even a respected physician such as Denis's contemporary, Claude Perrault, could find virtue in a medicinal paste made of "ground pearls mixed with extract of hyacinth bulbs."  Tucker's lessons about how far we've progressed—yet how far we have to go—are well delivered.

 

Her insights into the way superstitions still linger today—she cites the hysteria about animal-human chimeras during the Bush administration—and the way that scientific discoveries cannot stand alone, but need a whole system of ancillary knowledge to support them—in this case, the knowledge of immunology and blood types, without which transfusion was a dead end—form the metatext of this enrapturing historical investigation.

 

But these sober matters pale next to the many moments when Tucker revels in the bizarre, such as when British madman Arthur Coga, transfused with a few ounces of sheep's blood, professes that he is now half sheep, and begs the Royal Society to transform him entirely.  Of these strange incidents is the vaunted scientific revolution composed.

 

-PAUL DI FILIPPO


The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo's column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.

 

 

July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

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