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Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution

Holly Tucker

(W.W Norton; US: Mar 2011)

On the frontiers of science, it may seem like the bounds of society have been left far behind. It’s only natural. As a progressive endeavor, scientific research seeks to discover truth, irrespective of conventional wisdom. It can be difficult, however, to reconcile these new discoveries with the old beliefs. Author Holly Tucker believes that this gap, this terra incognita that exists between the limits of what is acceptable to society and where science wishes to take us, must be overcome. She fears, however, that the modern United States is in danger of repeating a tragic mistake, where beneficial scientific research is curtailed by politics, religious belief, and fear.


Her fascinating new book, Blood Work, chronicles the earliest experiments into blood transfusion and the furor surrounding them. Science, called natural philosophy in the waning years of the 17th century, was still in its infancy, very much enmeshed with the politics of the era and often at odds with centuries of religious tradition and dogma. The book’s principal subject, Jean-Baptiste Denis, was an outsider, an ambitious up-and-comer hoping to enter the elite world of Parisian physicians despite his low birth and common education. He knew that acceptance would not be granted to him; he had to seize it with grand achievements that would be impossible to ignore. The young doctor cultivated a flashy, arrogant demeanor, and set his sights on what would prove to be the most controversial field of study of the time. His brash and, at times, reckless approach to medicine earned him much renown, and much opprobrium from the authorities he so brazenly challenged. Soon, Denis found himself the target of a terrifying conspiracy that left his star patient dead and threatened to see him locked away in the terrifying squalor of Paris’s Grand Chatelet prison.


It’s a compelling story, made all the more so by Tucker’s crisp, novelistic writing. She escorts readers through the dense, filthy streets of Paris, to dark, forbidding alleyways, sumptuous estates, and into the bloody, tension-filled room that served as Denis’s makeshift laboratory. Blood Work is more than a simple medical history; it’s a true crime picaresque, with Denis as a roguish, ethically-challenged anti-hero beset on all sides by intrigue and villainy. It’s also a provocative exploration of the often strained relationship between science and the morality of the society it seeks to enlighten. For Tucker, who was inspired to tell the story of early blood transfusion experiments when President George W. Bush’s placed restrictions on stem-cell research and spoke out against “human-animal hybrids” in the 2006 State of the Union address, this is a crucial problem.


Today, we view blood transfusion as a common, relatively uncontroversial procedure. With the knowledge that it has saved millions of lives and presents no real risks when performed properly, it seems unbelievable that there was a time when it was regarded with such extreme fear. In 17th century France, however, it was in many circles considered a crime against humanity. In contrast, many of the procedures and practices seen as acceptable in that era are seen today as repugnant. Denis’s star patient, Antoine Mauroy, was selected for the transfusion experiment because he was mentally ill. Ostensibly, this was because the physician sought to cure Mauroy’s madness. It’s more likely that Denis felt no one would miss a madman were something to go wrong. Mauroy was abducted off the streets of the Marais and restrained to a table against his will, while Denis pumped calf’s blood into his veins.


It’s a horrific, nightmarish episode, but few of Denis’s peers cared about how he acquired his patient. The fact of the matter is that the ethics of the time allowed for the abuse and mistreatment of the mentally ill, but proscribed the pursuit of a medical procedure that could have had a profound effect on the health and well being of all people. 


Take Henri-Martin de la Martiniere, for example. Martiniere emerged as Denis’s chief antagonist, a strident opponent willing to go to any lengths to put a stop to blood transfusion, which he believed to be as offensive as cannibalism. He was a colorful character, having learned medicine as a young captive on a pirate ship before installing himself as a well-respected physician in the Parisian establishment. Though he was a devout Catholic, he was prone to outrageous dreams where the Olympian gods Athena and Apollo treated him to dramatic, allegorical visions of horrifying medical experiments. They spoke to him, and told him that it was up to him to stop Denis’s work and save mankind from damnation.


Martiniere is a complicated, contradictory figure, not unlike today’s so-called pro-life murderers who target abortion doctors and bomb clinics. His religious fanaticism gives him license to transgress the boundaries he claims to wish to uphold, and his extreme actions provided the pretext for Denis’s enemies in the government to effectively ban blood transfusion research for the next 150 years.


Tucker deserves much credit for taking a complicated and often convoluted history and turning it into a compelling, approachable, and highly readable narrative. Blood Work reads like fiction, but the stories it contains are too outrageous to be anything but true. Through meticulous research and investigation, Tucker has pieced together an important story about a medical procedure we take for granted, demonstrating that the marvels of modern medicine had to be fought for, and that allowing our ever-changing, often imperfect sense of morality to restrict scientific inquiry can have fatal consequences.

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Michael Patrick Brady is a writer and editor from Boston. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, Forbes.com, and ALARM Magazine, among others. Like all those who have more opinions than places to put them, he maintains a blog and collects his various publications at his website.


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