This Wednesday, March 16, at 7 p.m., Holly Tucker will read from and sign her new book, Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution, a fascinating history of blood transfusion and how it became embroiled in contentious religious and ethical debates in 17th-century Europe.
March is Red Cross Month, so Tucker and The King’s English, as well as other authors and independent bookstores, are participating in the Writers for the Red Cross online fundraising event. We have a countertop donation box and Holly will donate 10% to the Red Cross for every inscribed copy of Blood Work shipped, for free, by The King’s English this week.
And now, Holly Tucker, associate professor at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health & Society, tells us about how she came to write Blood Work.
By Holly Tucker
I stumbled on the twisted history of early blood transfusion while I was preparing class notes on William Harvey’s 1628 discovery of blood circulation. And honestly, when I read that the first transfusions used animals as donors I was so horrified and mesmerized that I really don’t remember whether I showed up to class fully prepared that day. For nearly a month afterward, I couldn’t get the idea of these transfusions—which took place long before the discovery of anesthesia and antisepsis—out of my mind. I spent every waking moment pouring over seventeenth-century scientific journals trying to learn as much as I could.
Then I stumbled on the Denis case. And my fascination became an obsession.
In 1667, a renegade French physician named Jean-Baptiste Denis performed the first human blood transfusions. The first was on a feverish young boy. The second was on a local butcher, probably the same one who provided the lamb for the first transfusion. The third transfusion would be the one that would end transfusion for another 150 years. Denis transfused a mentally ill man with calf blood. The man died—and Denis later faced murder charges in one of history’s first malpractice lawsuits.
What I was not prepared for was this: the court records exonerated Denis of all murder charges. But it did find that the patient had been murdered nonetheless—by arsenic and by “Enemies of the Experiment.” I was stunned that historians had never uncovered the identities of these murderers. Who would have wanted to stop blood transfusion in its tracks? And why?
So I spent another several years in archives all over: London, Paris, Rome. The more I researched, the more I learned just how scary blood transfusion was to many in the 17th century. Doctors had spent millennia taking blood out; it was entirely counter-intuitive to put blood in. And to make matters worse, there were no guarantees that blood transfusion would not change fundamental characteristics of the recipients. Would humans start to bark?
When I first narrowed down the list of suspects, I was pretty sure that I had a good idea of who did it. But the more I researched my suspect (I won’t tell you who, no spoilers!), the more I realized that he didn’t do it—even if he did find blood transfusion to be loathsome and dangerous. I felt weighed down my research. I was driven to find out the identities of the killers. But at the same time, I had a responsibility to make sure I got things right. I was accusing someone of a crime. And even if these folks are now long dead, I couldn’t get it wrong.
I still remember the day that I knew for certain that I had found the killers. For several months, I felt that I was getting close. My husband kept asking if everything was alright, because he noticed how distracted I seemed. On the day that I knew for sure, 100%, without a doubt that I had found the murderers, I called Jon at the office in tears. He was understandably worried when he answered the phone and heard me crying. Finally, the words came spilling out. “I know who did it! I know who did it!” Then we started laughing: it had only taken 350 years.