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The year is 1688 and it is a clear Spring day in Paris. At the court of Chastelet a distinguished and learned crowd is gathered to view the trial of Jean-Baptise Denis a bright young mathematician with an interest in medicine. Denis has recently earned himself a place in history by being the first person to perform a blood transfusion on a human being. But things have not gone well for Denis or for Antoine Mauroy, his patient. Mauroy has died and Denis is on trial for murder.
This fascinating tale of madness, corruption and intrigue roams from Classical Greece to the London of Sir Christopher Wren and the Paris of Louis XIV. The exploration of profound ethical dilemmas is as relevant today as in Denis' own time.
A stave struck the floor three times, demanding attention from the assembled crowd. The effect was a brief lull in the hubbub, followed by a resumption of the cacophony. Three more times the stave hit the marble tile, each assault more strident than the one before. 'S'il vous plaît,' called the official in the clipped accent that marked him as a resident of Paris. 'S'il vous plaît,' he repeated, spacing each word and ensuring that his call was noticed. The case before them was serious - after all, accusations of murder should never be taken lightly, particularly in such unusual circumstances. The date was Saturday, 17 April 1668. The place, Le Grand Chastelet, the central court in Paris, a fantastic building in the heart of the city on the banks of the River Seine.
In the centre of one small group stood Jean-Baptiste Denis, one of a number of science-minded medics who had the acquaintance of King Louis XIV. Denis had been born into a family that moved on the edge of royal circles, but was never in a position to gain full acceptance. His father was Louis XIV's chief engineer, who had made a name for himself designing and building water pumps. Now aged about twenty-seven, Denis had a superb mind and had obtained a bachelor's degree intheology before going on to study medicine at Montpellier. He had recently been awarded a doctorate in mathematics, and had returned to his native city of Paris, assuming the position of professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, and dividing his time between his major interests of mathematics and astronomy. As a hobby he dabbled in medical research. Like so many hobbyists he had hoped that one day this pastime would strike gold. Instead it had brought him to court - on trial for murder.
The legal professionals surrounding him wore black gowns and square hats with one corner pointing forward, casting a triangular shadow across their faces like a raptor's beak. They included Denis' lawyer, M. Lamoignon, the son of the First President of the Parliament of Paris. Denis wore his carefully contoured wig that ended in a tightly rolled curl just above the collar of his long dark-brown jacket and gently frilled shirt - a dresscode that marked him as a man of learning. He grimaced in annoyance at the sight of splashes of mud or unmentionable excrement that had spattered the pristine white stockings which rose from highly polished black high-heeled shoes sporting large, square, silver buckles. This was a critical day, and Denis wanted the Sergeant charged with reviewing the case to be in no doubt as to his status.
Alongside him stood a powerful collection of friends, including Henri Louis Habert de Montmor, first Master of Requests to Louis XIV. Their dress-sense was as far from drab as was possible. They wore huge wigs that sent curls cascading down elaborately frilled shirts, and massively sleeved coats covered in the most ornate needlework.
In the gallery sat a man and a woman, both of whom were present as witnesses. Both were patients who had received the treatment Denis had developed, and both were adamant that it had cured them. The woman claimed that prior to the treatment she had been partially paralysed, but was now cured. Evidence - living proof. That was important. Equally important was the presence of other dignitaries such as the ducs d'Enghien, de Luynes, and de Chaulnes, their circle of friends and courtiers. Even if a case started to look thin, such an impressive line-up of supporters packing the gallery provided a greater hope of winning.
The official struck again, this time lashing out at the surface of the table, creating a sharp 'crack'. The chatter of the crowd dropped to whispers, though some laughed at the man's attempts to create order. Denis' mind, however, was jolted by the memory of an urgent knocking at his door one evening a few months earlier, which represented the start of this unfortunate episode.
* * *
It had been late, and Sunday had just rolled into the early hours of Monday, 19 December 1667. Denis, as was often the case, was sitting in his library considering some of his latest observations and calculations on the movement of various planets, when he heard a carriage pull up at the door. He was a sombre-looking gentleman, for whom generous meals were beginning to make their mark on his waistline and, despite his youth, middle-age was beginning to show itself in the appearance of ample flesh around his lower jaw and deep-set crescent-shaped creases framing his mouth. He continued working, scratching the side of his roman nose, so deep in concentration that he had forgotten about the visitor. A few minutes later his servant appeared, announcing that Monsieur de Montmor had sent for him. Denis narrowed his eyes and, filled with a combination of alarm and excitement, tried to determine why he was being summoned at this time of night. After all, Paris in 1667 wasn't the safest place to wander around the streets after dark. But then again, de Montmor wasn't the sort of person to make idle requests.
With an annual income of 100,000 livres, the 67-year-old French aristocrat Henri de Montmor had personal financial independence, with sufficient surplus for expensive hobbies, the main one of which was newscience. Using this wealth he had founded the Académie Montmor in 1657, which had become a meeting place for intellectual talent including the likes of the innovative mathematician and friend René Descartes, Girard Desargues, the Professor of mathematics at the Collége Royale in Paris, Pierre Gassendi, mathematician, physicist and religious philosopher and Blaise Pascal, as well as people like French poet and critic Jean Chapelain. These notables met weekly at the spectacular Hôtel de Montmor, standing at what is now number 79 rue du Temple, half-a-mile north of the river level with Notre Dame, in what is now Paris' third arrondissement.
At the beginning of 1667 the group was in the process of disbanding, some of the members having been invited to join the newly formed Académie des Sciences, but in scientific circles Montmor still held considerable influence. Denis abandoned his work, spent a few minutes carefully rearranging his clothes, and with the assistance of his servant tugged his wig on over his closely cut hair. Checking himself in the mirror, he pulled at his collars, readjusted his wig and, deciding all was well, he left. To his relief he discovered that Montmor's servant had come with a closed carriage. But he was taken by surprise when he climbed inside to find it already occupied by Paul Emmerey, a talented surgeon and anatomist who had also tagged onto the group. At the peak of his career, Emmerey was recognised as one of the most capable teachers of surgery and anatomy, and having been born in Saint Quentin, Paris, rose to become the Provost of the Parisian Society of Surgeons. Finding that neither knew the nature of the summons, both men said nothing as the carriage rattled noisily along cobbled streets, passing the Hotel de Ville before heading east along rue du Temple.
Veering sharply left through the gates, the carriage stopped in an open courtyard and its two passengers headed straight for the door. On arrival they were shown into the high-ceilinged library where they were met with a few shouts of welcome. The ornate room was already full of fashionable gentlemen, strutting around and standing about in order that their flamboyant costumes could be seen to greatest effect. At the far end of the library, tied to a chair, was a man, his hair matted and wet, his face grazed, and in marked contrast to the other occupants of the room, he was without clothes. A cloak had been draped around his shoulders, but it slipped to the floor every now and then as he fought to free himself.
The captive was 34-year-old Antoine Mauroy, a man-servant who lived in a village about 10 miles from the centre of Paris. For seven or eight years he had suffered from bouts of insanity, each lasting 10 or more months. During these episodes he became violent, and had a tendency to run around the streets naked, whenever possible setting fire to buildings. Unsurprisingly, he soon became notorious in the district.
About a year earlier, during one of his sane periods, he had married Perrine, a young woman who was persuaded to believe that his insanity had been a passing illness and that he was now cured. The marriage appeared to have started well, but sadly after a few months his behaviour deteriorated. Initially his wife had managed to contain him, and despite being attacked on a number of occasions, she and friends had tied him down for his own safety as well as that of those around him.
There were plenty of people willing to give advice about treatments and remedies for Antoine's condition. Quite clearly something was causing this outrageous behaviour, and according to the principles followed by most practitioners at the time, the strongest possibility was that Antoine's blood was to blame. Maybe he simply had too much of it, or he had an appropriate amount, but it had become contaminated. Either way, the best thing to do would be to remove some.
Local physicians and barbers had 'bled' him on eighteen separate occasions, a technique that was assumed to let out bad blood, restore a healthy balance and enable recovery. They had also given him forty or more 'baths', each filled with different combinations of herbs, chemicals and other active ingredients. Nothing had changed. Taking a similar tack they had strapped innumerable potions to his forehead. But all to no avail. In response he repeatedly broke free, and ran off.
On this particular dark midwinter evening, Mme Mauroy had been scouring the streets and alleys, fields and ditches, searching for him, or even hoping to find telltale signs of his destructive passing. She was, however, unaware that this time he had made it as far as central Paris and been detained by night watchmen. For some reason this sad man had been brought to the attention of Montmor. Whether out of a sense of pity or curiosity we will never know, but, unable to find a place in a suitable hospital, Montmor had taken him home, and then called in his friends.
His idea was as simple as it was radical. Over the last few months he knew that two of the members of his academy, Denis and Emmerey, had been experimenting with the idea of swapping blood between different animals. In the mid-seventeenth century, any thinking about the body centred around the idea that a person's blood contained vital elements of their spirit. This gave rise to a new possibility. Might draining his own, sinfully damaged blood, and replacing it with pure, innocent blood from a docile animal, cure the behaviour of a wild and dangerous man? Could the blood of a lamb, for example, literally wash away a man's sins?
As Denis and Emmerey walked into the room, all heads turned towards them and conversation dropped to a murmur. The men stepped forward and bowed in respect to Montmor and his assembled friends, acknowledging their nods with warm smiles and waves of their hats. Montmor beckoned them over towards Mauroy, and the three stood together while Montmor filled them in with the case history as he saw it. Their task, he informed them, was to see if they felt this man was a suitable candidate for a transfusion.
The stakes were high. Among the gathered crowd there were certainly many who hoped this would be the case, in order that they would be able to witness the experiment and another amazing stride forward in the rapidly expanding field of scientific medicine. Others were either deeply sceptical or totally outraged. If anything terrible happened to the patient, the whole of Paris would know about it, and Denis' livelihood, maybe even his life, would be in danger. If the experiment was successful, Denis was sure that he could sign his name in history.
Playing with fire
* * *
But what if it went wrong? Today, the whole concept of moving blood from an animal to a person seems bizarre. Many would also view it as unethical in terms of both the risk to the patient and the use of the donor animal, which would probably bleed to death during the process. But to appreciate the reason for the taste of fear in Denis' mouth at the time, we need to understand his reverence for blood.
Like most of the people gathered in Montmor's apartment, Denis was not one of the ignorant conmen or dangerous quacks who set up business in dingy back streets of towns and cities in seventeenth-century Europe. His knowledge of theology and the magical wisdom of the Graeco-Roman world taught him that blood played a fundamental role as a mediator between humankind and the gods. It was a symbol around which spirituality and superstition, sacred teachings and folklore all mingled. No one toyed with blood.
However, blood was more than just a symbol. Blood was life. Any physician handling blood was manipulating the very life of the person. This conclusion came from one simple observation. Slit an animal's throat, or a human's for that matter, and watch what happens. As the blood gushes out, the person starts to become faint, running low on their vital spirit. Once drained of all his or her blood, the person has no life left in his or her body. Quite obviously, life leaves with the blood. Therefore blood contained life.
This rationale underpins many of the earliest recorded events that involve or make statements about blood. One such incident occurs in writings attributed to the Greek epic poet Homer, whose eighth-century BC story, the Odyssey, recounts the aftermath of the Trojan War. At one point in the book, Homer's hero Odysseus finds himself in a spot of trouble and, taking the advice of a witch, summons the dead oracle Tiresias. Odysseus hopes that this soothsayer will be able to solve his problems. In a daring move, Odysseus enters Hades and pours an offering of milk, honey, wine and the blood of a sacrificial ram. This blood wins the day, and as the spirits of the dead drink this 'black, steaming' blood, so they regain their memories of life on earth, regain their vital breath of life for a brief moment, and give Odysseus the help he needs. Blood had, at least temporarily, restored Tiresias' life.
While the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were marked by a new phase in human thought that wanted to question mythical understanding, most of its philosophers still took biblical teaching seriously. Throughout the biblical texts were clear warnings not to take blood lightly.
Excerpted from Blood and Justice by Pete Moore Excerpted by permission.
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Note on sources.
• Cast ?, and people mentioned, in order of appearance.
1 A Vital Fluid.
2 Building on Harvey.
3 English Infusion.
4 Scientific Society.
5 English Transfusions.
6 Denis 'Route to the Top.
7 Precedence and Prison.
8 Playing Catch-Up.
9 Mauroy Mystery.
10 The Great Debate.
11 Mistake, Malice or Murder?
Posted February 10, 2004
This book is packed with historical detail of an incredible chain of events in 17th century London and Paris. Its got science, philosophy, history and humour all in one shot. This is a great book if you ever wondered how the greatest minds of the time were trying to cure people of diseases before they knew how the body worked.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.