What History Teaches Us About Blood, Stem Cells, and Fear

Some medical debates are as old as the Scientific Revolution. An interview with Holly Tucker, the author of Blood Work.


An animal and a human arm on a table, with the tubular attachments necessary for connecting the two. Johann Sigismund Eisholtz, 1667. National Library of Medicine

Blood and the process of removing it from people are objects of enduring cultural fascination, as the glut of teenage vampire novels can attest. It was not much different in 17th-century Europe at the dawn of the Scientific Revolution, when a band of natural philosophers armed with knives and goose-quill tubes began to investigate the idea of transferring blood from one person or animal to another. Their story, as told in a new book by Vanderbilt University historian Holly Tucker, is vivid, strange, and reveals much about modern medicine.

In Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution (W.W. Norton, March 21, $25.95), Tucker follows the exploits of Jean-Baptiste Denis, an ambitious young physician who decided to make a name for himself by experimenting with the dangerous new idea of transfusion. His gory experiments transferring blood between dogs led him to attempt the first human transfusion—creating a scandal that would be his downfall and would cause transfusion to be banned for more than 200 years. In a time when health was thought to depend on the body's four humors—blood, black bile, red bile, and phlegm—the best medical schools believed blood was produced by the liver and might even be the seat of the soul. Blood transfusion was thus an abomination, broaching deep fears about the pollution of the human species.

Today, of course, transfusion is one of the miracles of modern medicine and has saved millions of lives. I asked Tucker about how medical science interacts with our cultural preconceptions and what we can learn from the past.

In the book, you draw detailed character sketches of the men exploring early blood science, so they seem as familiar as modern scientists. What about medical science today is similar to medical science during the Scientific Revolution?

In writing Blood Work, I was continually struck by similarities between the 17th-century blood transfusion debate and our own genomic era. Then, as now, natural philosophers (as scientists were called then) had a clear sense that they were at the forefront of something big. They weren't sure what it meant and how it would turn out. But they knew it was potentially game-changing in regard to medicine.

The story of early blood transfusion reminds us that there are predictable ways that society tries to classify researchers who are trying to push the boundaries of science in any moment of biomedical innovation. Depending on your viewpoint, scientists can take on hero status for their seemingly dispassionate pursuit of the truth. They can be vilified as power-hungry renegades interested only in celebrity. Or even monster-like characters who are so possessed by their work that they would sacrifice humanity for their singular cause.

Still, I feel very confident that there are few, if any, Dr. Frankensteins and Dr. Moreaus out there. In fact, science is rarely as dramatic as what we read about in works of science fiction. In the end, we all want the same thing from medical science: to live healthier and fuller lives.

bloodwork.tiff_sized.jpg What precepts from this early era of medical science have persisted to the present day?

How much time do I have? The list would be endless. The Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries has a lasting legacy involving everything we do, especially how we do it. In the 1630s, the philosopher René Descartes ("I think, therefore I am") was one of the first to articulate what we would later call the Scientific Method.

What interests me, though, is also how Descartes's most contested philosophy—mind/body dualism—also permeates modern medical science and how we're still questioning whether it is the best approach to the body.

Descartes held that animals and humans were similar in that their bodies functioned something like clocks. What distinguished humans from animals was, according to Descartes, that they had souls that were not part of the body itself. This theory opened the doors to vivisection and other animal experimentation. It also paved the way for a separation of mind and body that has long characterized medical practice.

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Veronique Greenwood is a staff writer at Discover. Her writing has also appeared in Seed, Technology Review, Scientific American, and elsewhere. You can learn more about her at veroniquegreenwood.com.

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