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Blood Work

A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution by Holly Tucker

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It’s hard to believe now, but Copernicus worked out that the Earth revolves around the sun decades before scientists figured out that blood circulates through the human body. An English physician, William Harvey, announced in 1628 that the heart pumps blood through the arteries and veins, only to be denounced for decades by conservative doctors. It was against this backdrop in 1665 — a time when pocket sundials were all the rage — that the first blood transfusions were carried out.

Tucker, a historian of medicine, paints a vivid portrait of the first transfusionists and their experiments. Physician Richard Lower went first, transferring blood between dogs to the amazement of scientists at London’s Royal Society. In 1667, a young physician named Jean-Baptiste Denis transfused lamb’s blood into a boy to cure his fever. With no understanding of blood types or species differences, the first patients probably survived only because the crude equipment transferred so little blood.

Denis’ second patient died days after a transfusion, and Tucker unearths historical documentation strongly suggesting the man was poisoned by Denis’ detractors to end the experiments. True or not, the French parliament banned the procedure, and human transfusions were halted until the 1800s.

The tale raises questions about science that are as relevant today as in the 17th century. Society then feared that transfusions would create man-beast monsters, and lest anyone scoff, Tucker notes that in 2006 George W. Bush called for a ban on research “creating human-animal hybrids.” Today’s fights over embryonic stem cell research and transgenic organisms reveal that every era must grapple with moral taboo and, ultimately, what it means to be human.

W.W. Norton, 2011, 304 p., $25.95.

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