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.