Holly Tucker’s Blood Work

Holly Tucker, Blood Work: A Tale of Murder and Medicine in the ‘Scientific Revolution’. Norton, 2011.

I picked up this book at just the right time. I read it a few weeks ago just before I started teaching my summer anatomy course. Its always a good to be reminded of all of the work and drama that went into what seems like dull facts and standard procedures today. In this case there really was a lot of blood, sweat and tears by the medical establishments of two countries intensely throughout the 1660s before the work was banned for over a century. Holly Tucker’s Blood Work is centered on the century when the quest to understand blood went from counter-productive procedures based on medieval philosophy to the beginning of scientific understanding and experimentally based medicine.

Pride and glory drove the main protagonists of the story. For Jean-Baptiste Denis, the physician at the center of Blood Work,  the need to overcome his humble origins by proving his worth and more to the gentlemen physicians of France was a driving force. His benefactor Henri-Louis Habert de Montmor wanted to be the patron of the most brilliant, the most significant scientists of France, to be the Lorenzo de’ Medici to a scientific Michaelangelo. Add in an Anglo-French medical society rivalry and some pirates for good measure, and you have a page-turner of a history. I have to admit chuckling every few pages. Some of their experiments were like watching a train-wreck in slow motion. Holly Tucker is no doubt right that they were saved from causing much more damage by their inefficiency at transfusion.

I won’t give away any of the main plot or the murder, but there were some memorable sidelines. This description of ‘heroic medicine’ will stay with me for a while.

Claude arranged for a barber-surgeon to administer numerous bleedings to his brothers arms and legs. When bleeding seemed no longer to have any effect, they tried to place leeches behind Jean’s ears, but blistering there from other treatments with warming salves kept the leeches from doing their work. Bouillons, enemas, and purgings accompanied each bleeding in a desperate attempt to save Jean’s life. And to these were added chest rubs with concoctions of ground pearls mixed with extracts of hyacinth bulbs to warm Jean’s blood, as well as placement of gutted pigeons on his scalp to create heat to stave off the shivering. Despite Claude’s heroic attempts to save his brother (or perhaps because of them), Jean died a few weeks later. (p. 105-6)

Claude Perrault was one of the best trained physicians in France, and  a founding member of King Louis XIV’s Academy of Science. He held a prominent position in the Paris Faculty of Medicine and he used all learning to try to save his brother Jean. The idea of keeping your brother warm with a gutted pigeon on his head is priceless.

If you think that today’s publish or perish environment is tough, you should read what it did to Henry Oldenburg, who nearly single-handed published the Philosophical Transactions for the Royal Society of London. He volunteered his own time and talent, published at his own considerable expense for printing and postage, was accused to treason for gathering scientific news from France, and landed in the Tower of London for his troubles (where he had to pay rent for his prison cell). He then got out and worked even harder for the Royal Society (still for free) to reestablish his reputation. His treatment is enough to keep freelance science writers, bloggers, and researchers up nights.

I do have to say that I’m not bothered by the fact that the transfusion experiments were stopped. While Holly Tucker is no doubt right that other equally dangerous experiments and treatments were being done at the same time, the paradigm shift from blood letting to blood transfusion was too great, too fast. They didn’t understand even the basics of what they were transfusing and they were doing it for the wrong scientific and philosophical reasons. Simply stopping the blood letting would have improved survival significantly!

As memorable as the information and stories in Blood Work will be, perhaps more importantly it has made me think about the importance of narrative in books on history. So many of the history books I read are organized and written like textbooks, academic in their boredom as much as their content. I read them for their information rather than for entertainment. Its nice to have both!


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