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Seeing red

Blood Work by Holly Tucker

Ian Brooks 2 January 2012

The prick of life: detail from the cover

In such brutal and dynastic times, the lives of the rich and powerful depended on the constant favor of the throne and the poor lived at the whim of the rich and powerful

To allow foreign blood to enter one’s veins…is to bring about a bloodbath, a most inhuman remedy [that] will attract the ire of God.

- Henri-Martin de la Martinière, Letter to the Paris Medical Faculty, 1667

…I ask you to pass 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…Human life is a gift from our creator…

- George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, 2006

The best authors of historical non-fiction do more than provide the reader with facts. They posses the narrative skills to draw us into the lives of the characters by adding metaphorical flesh to their existence via comparison to current society. In the best cases this narrative is based tightly on the protagonists’ letters and diaries, as well as other surviving historic documents of the time. For example, Nathaniel Philbrick in Sea of Glory makes meticulous use of authoritative primary and secondary accounts of the voyage of the great US Exploring Expedition of 1838-42 to infuse the text and enthuse his readers. If you don’t quite feel like you’re actually on the voyage with those brave and foolhardy young men, you certainly feel as if you’re learning of their accounts at the famous Court Martial of the young Lieutenant who led them to glory at first and ignominy later.

Indeed, some of the best works of historical non-fiction are those that encourage us to look at our own lives and personal histories through the lens of a bygone age. There is much to be gained by learning about the trials, tribulations and victories of our forefathers. I’ve read some excellent biographies of recent and less recent historic figures (Isaacson’s masterful biographies of Benjamin Franklin & Albert Einstein are worth reading, as is Anthony Everitt’s authoritative biography of Augustus Caesar). These focus on an individual and how the mores of his or her time influenced their development. We learn about the period vicariously through the life of the person being scrutinized.

The converse, discovering our ancestors through examination of their society, can also be rewarding. Indeed, our recent history provides us with a rich vein of material to scrutinize current prides and prejudices. For as much as we are shaped by our society, we are the players on the stage bringing our society to life. It is a circular relationship. Roy Porter is an excellent, albeit sometimes dry, source for learning about pre-enlightenment Europe; Quacks is a fine read, but it feels more like a textbook at times, and the lack of focus on individual characters fails to provide an anchor in the narrative, making it hard to really feel what life was like in the 17th Century.

A recent welcome addition to my bookshelves and personal Top Ten list is Holly Tucker’s Blood Work, A Tale of Medicine & Murder in the Scientific Revolution (WW Norton & Sons). Tucker is an associate professor in the Department of French & Italian and the Center for Medicine, Health & Society at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN, and a recognized expert on early modern European social history. In Blood Work, Tucker takes us from the parlors of seventeenth century English gentlemen and natural philosophers and into the squalor and horror of the streets of Paris as she unfolds the mystery, myth – and murder – surrounding the first attempts at blood transfusion.

William Harvey discovered the circulatory system in 1628 and started one of the first scientific revolutions. By 1665 the first animal-to-animal transfusions were being performed in England, and British scientists were far outstripping their French rivals in this new area of natural philosophy. This lag was partly due to the view of the Parisian Medical Faculty, the closest thing at the time to an authoritative unified voice, that the circulation of blood was a lie and deception invented by the heretical Protestant British, and that only the original writings of the Roman ‘physician’ Galen were to be taught and practiced. This background of cross-channel rivalry is richly embroidered by Tucker’s elegant descriptions of the political and social life of these times. In both countries, the King was the absolute power over life and the Church the absolute ruler of souls. European countries were vying for dominance and war was a constant and very real threat. In such brutal and dynastic times the lives of the rich and powerful depended on the constant favor of the throne and the poor lived at the whim of the rich and powerful.

Into this unpredictable ecosystem enters our protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Denis, an arrogant, self-assured young physician who is determined to rise above his lowly social station and enter the ranks of the Parisian elite at any price. In 1667 he performs the first animal-to-human blood transfusion, and apparently cures the unfortunate recipient of his madness. While Denis celebrates victory and crows over his success, powerful enemies within the medical establishment are plotting his downfall. Within a few weeks the transfusionist is on trial for his life. The charge? Murder by transfusion. The horror of the alleged crime and the increasingly loud voice of opposition result in a ban on blood transfusions in 1670 that lasts for 150 years.

Part of my love for this book and the story it tells stems from my background and training as a biologist. With Harvey’s discovery of the circulatory system we have a true landmark in the development of the modern scientific technique (his original notes and diaries are on display in the British Library in London). This marked the beginning of observation and experimentation overthrowing centuries of dogma and leading to testable theories and new medical advances. The subsequent advent of the Cartesian philosophy of mind-body dualism allowed horrific vivisection of animals and I think likely gave rise to much of our societal fear of medical experimentation today, and perhaps gives undue weight to animal rights activists and their misguided cries that we’re all animal torturers in disguise as seekers of truth.

To non-scientists there is still much to gained from this book. Tucker’s examination and treatment of seventeenth century French city life and social politics is fascinating, and provides subtle insight and counterpoint into our own accepted political caste system. Her exploration of the lifestyles and governing social mores of the English and French caste systems and the fundamentally differing worldviews of these arch rivals is fascinating. In addition we learn much about how the daily influence of religion as an accepted dogma had on the lives of those at the time, and how this juxtaposition over life and death still perhaps holds sway today.