Blood Work

IfI might paraphrase Lady Macbeth, who mused sweetly upon one of her victims,”Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood inhim,” I would suggest that a delighted reader’s first reaction uponfinishing Holly Tucker’s captivating, enlightening and mildly horrifying BloodWork might be, “Yet who would have thought the history of bloodtransfusion to have had so much sheer entertainment in it.”

Webenefit from Tucker’s keen instincts as a historian about the riches lurking inthis formerly neglected subject matter; her devilish ability to concoctsomething of a hypnotic Grand Guignol (warning to PETA members and othersensitive souls:  many, many dogs wereharmed in the making of this book); and from her meticulous documentaryresearches and respect for science.  Theresult is a treat:  a solid dose oflearning in a novelistic package, where a lesser writer might have presentedonly a dry account of some curious medical milestones.

Tucker’sfocus is France in the middle of the seventeenth century, a rich period indeedfor cultural, political and scientific advance and turmoil.  Her vivid recreation of the era, full ofsensory details, puts the reader smack-dab in the middle of Dumas-land.  Her chief protagonist—in a well-defined castfeaturing scores of colorful individuals—is a doctor named Jean-Baptiste Denis,who performed the first transference of animal blood into human veins.  Needless to say, this bold, albeit misguidedexperiment ended well for no one, patient, doctor or medicalestablishment.  Tucker vigorously chartsthe scientific and personal reasons leading up to such an arterial leap offaith, venturing as far back into the past (1628) and as far abroad (WilliamHarvey’s England) as necessary, unweaving the tangled skein of reasoning andambition surrounding Denis’s mad-scientist pursuits.

Alongwith her trenchant examination of the era’s rational discourse, intellectualtrends and nascent R&D programs, we enjoy a more fantastical history oflegends and folk beliefs concerning that essential red liquor that flowsthrough all of us.  Tucker reminds usthat this period still favored alchemy, and believed in the ancient reportsfrom Pliny of dog-faced men and other marvels. And of course, the notorious practice of bleeding a patient to adjusttheir humors was still de rigueur.  Evena respected physician such as Denis’s contemporary, Claude Perrault, could findvirtue in a medicinal paste made of “ground pearls mixed with extract ofhyacinth bulbs.”  Tucker’s lessonsabout how far we’ve progressed—yet how far we have to go—are well delivered.

Herinsights into the way superstitions still linger today—she cites the hysteriaabout animal-human chimeras during the Bush administration—and the way that scientificdiscoveries cannot stand alone, but need a whole system of ancillary knowledgeto support them—in this case, the knowledge of immunology and blood types,without which transfusion was a dead end—form the metatext of this enrapturinghistorical investigation.

Butthese sober matters pale next to the many moments when Tucker revels in thebizarre, such as when British madman Arthur Coga, transfused with a few ouncesof sheep’s blood, professes that he is now half sheep, and begs the RoyalSociety to transform him entirely.  Ofthese strange incidents is the vaunted scientific revolution composed.


The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.