On a cold night in December 1667, the renegade physician Jean-Baptiste Denis transfused calf’s blood into the arm of a mentally-ill man named Antoine Mauroy. The results were promising: the man survived. But two more transfusions later, each time with more calf’s blood, Mauroy was dead. And Denis was accused of murder.
The circumstances of early animal-to-human transfusions and the dramatic court case that followed Mauroy’s death is the focus of my latest book, Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution.
It may seem incredibly strange that the earliest transfusions used animals as donors. But this actually makes good sense, in a way. The first transfusionists were interested in finding the best and purest blood that they could use in their experiments. Animals fit the bill.
When’s the last time you’ve seen a dog speak? Or heard a cow swear? Or a lamb drink? The thought was that animals lived purely. They did not corrupt their blood with foul matter, like humans did.
Also, animals were—so they thought—expendable. Why risk the life of two human beings in these risky experiments when you could pluck animal off the street or have a local butcher bring one in?
Denis’ very first blood experiment on humans was performed on a feverish boy. The second on a butcher, likely the one who brought the lamb in for the first experiment. Both survived.
The next human transfusion was performed in England. But the English had shifted course. They focused their efforts on a mentally-ill man named Arthur Coga. Coga was well-educated and spoke fluent Latin. But there was something off about him. “Cracked in the head,” as a contemporary wrote.
Mental illness was thought to be caused by overly hot blood in the body, which produced vapors. These vapors rose to the brain and troubled the mind. The treatment for mental illness was, then, bloodlettings and frequently bathing in ice cold water. When that didn’t work, surgeons looked to skull drilling. In severe cases, it was thought that a small pebble sized rock had been lodged in the brain—and needed to be removed. It was a radical procedure, performed with hand-cranked drills, but one that was well-known and performed when symptoms warranted.
But for now, the English experimenters wanted to give transfusion with animal blood a shot. Lamb’s blood was purest (Lamb of God, Blood of Christ) was purest and was seen as cooler. And cooler meant calmer.
Coga submitted to several experiments. But later refused because he became convinced—or claimed to be convinced—that his doctors were trying to turn him into a lamb.
Following in the English footsteps, Denis transfused his own madman. And with disastrous results. Following the court case, blood transfusion was soon banned across Europe for over 150 years.
Holly Tucker teaches French and History of Medicine at Vanderbilt University. Blood Work is her second book.