Blood Work by Holly Tucker – Book Review

Blood Work by Holly Tucker
Published by W. W.  Norton & Co

If you need a blood transfusion, you just head to the hospital, get your blood typed, and lay back and have a nice sterilized needle send some nice, compatible blood into your veins, right? Certainly this is the case now, but it wasn’t always so. In the 17th century, you might have been infused the blood of a cow, dog, or sheep through a long tube. And, too, you might not get the transfusion because you lost blood in an accident or something similar, you might receive one in order to treat your mental instability.

The men had agreed that the cooling effects of blood transfusion could be very promising treatment for “extravagant” minds. At the time, humoral imbalances were still understood to lie at the root of madness. -p. 159

Blood transfusion was not fully accepted during the 17th century, however. In fact, the conservative physicians of France were wholly against the entire proposition. For one thing, it ran counter to centuries of medical based on the works of Galen. For another thing, it offended the strict Catholic beliefs of most of the country.

To imagine transfusion meant to dismiss biblical dictates such as in Deuteronomy 12:23, “Eat not the blood, for the blood is the life.” p. -209

Not all French physicians felt the same, however. Jean-Baptiste Denis was captivated by stories of transfusion reaching France from across the English Chanel, and decided that he too wanted to attempt transfusions. To this end, he tracked down Antoine Mauroy, the most notorious madman in Paris, and attempted to transfuse him. The first transfusion went well and even seemed to cure his insanity temporarily. A later transfusion, however, went very strangely and ended very badly, leading to Denis being accused of murder. It seemed clear that he was framed, but by whom?

Blood Work is not only the story of this medical mystery, the death of Antoine Mauroy and the framing of Jean-Baptiste Denis. Tucker also provides a background to the history of early transfusion. In doing so, she sheds a great deal of light on the culture and beliefs of 17th century France and England, as well as explaining the previously omnipresent custom of bloodletting.

Holly Tucker has written absolutely fascinating book. It is an extremely compelling read. Even with a stack of books in my bag and an even bigger pile on my Nook,, when I picked up Blood Work on the airplane I did not put it back down until I had turned the last page. Part of this is simply Tucker’s writing style. She has clear, concise prose that makes even convoluted 17th century medical beliefs easy to follow. In addition, she clearly has a great command of her subject matter. When the author understands her material so well, she can explain even the most complex subjects with ease.

Blood Work is a fascinating medical and social history written with a clarity that brings the reader greater understanding. I highly recommend it. And now, let me just leave you with the questions Tucker poses at the end of her introduction:

For now I simply ask readers to keep two questions in mind as they enter the teeming streets and cluttered laboratories of seventeenth-century Paris and London: Should a society set limits on its science? If so, how and at what price? -p. xxix

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