Friday, January 6, 2012

The Thread: Blood Work by Holly Tucker

This will be the thread I continue to post on while reading Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution by Holly Tucker. If any reader feels so inclined, you may of course post your thoughts about the book in the comments section below.

I'm about 135 pages in and absolutely loving this. It's nonfiction, of course, about the first blood transfusions in the 17th century. What starts as dog-to-dog transfusions (usually from a larger canine to a smaller) quickly progresses - as both English and French transfusionists compete - into transfusing blood from one animal species to another (horse-to-goat, for instance) and, eventually, the first ever animal-to-human blood transfusions. At the center of these experiments is Jean-Baptiste Denis, a Frenchman rising to popularity who, after a botched transfusion kills a man, is accused of murder.

But Blood Work is more than blood. It is also an account of how we got to those first transfusions, the steps and missteps, and how blood transfusions were banned for two hundred years thereafter. The chapter on the Great Plague of London in 1665-6 and of the London Fire were particularly horrifying and captivating.

In part, Blood Work is fascinating because Tucker's prose doesn't read like a stuffy historical narrative; instead, I am reminded of magical realists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. She doesn't shy away from writing grotesquely vivid descriptions of the transfusions and, accompanied by the illustrations of the experiment tables and tools used, Blood Work may not be for the faint of heart. There is much cruelty in scientific discovery.

But so far it is a fascinating exploration of a dark and somewhat obscure moment in the history of science, and one I hope you'll continue to read with me.

UPDATE 01/14/2012

Blood Work was mesmerizing; Tucker made the 17th century come alive through her extensive research and her sparse, but elegant prose. Indeed, she was even able to correlate those early transfusions with the ongoing debates concerning hESC today. Imagine if, as Tucker posits, transfusionists had been allowed to continue their work even after the Denis debacle: how many more people might we have saved throughout history and, given the possibility of even greater benefits through hESC research, how many more could we save in the future?

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