June 2024
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Review: Blood Work, Holly Tucker

blood workBlood Work is a multi-pronged look at the history of blood transfusion during the Scientific Revolution in both England and France. Tucker mainly tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Denis, a physician outside the cult of Paris-educated noblemen, who in what could have been a world-changing experiment transfused calf’s blood into a madman in Paris. The madman died and Denis wound up framed for murder as a result. Tucker also looks at the race between the English and the French to transfuse faster, and their struggles to publish first and occasional glossing over of facts as they did so. The book is also a deeper look at the ethics behind blood transfusion; the many ways people questioned what they didn’t understand, tried to stop it happening, and eventually wound up slowing progress for hundreds of years.

Blood Work has been on my wishlist since well before it was published. I bought it almost immediately afterwards, but for some reason took a while to actually get around to reading it. I think my expectations were slightly too high. I needn’t have worried, as this is truly a riveting account of a story I’d heard little about. Blood transfusion is an essential for our modern day doctors. It saves lives every day. As a result, it’s somewhat shocking to read about the origins of it and the many crazy things people thought would happen. Would cow’s blood turn a man into a bovine? Would he start to baa like a sheep? If you transfused blood from people of different colours, what happened? These questions made people very nervous, some so much so that they would do anything in their power to stop the process.

I have to admit one of the questions foremost in my mind as I was reading this book was just how people and animals weren’t dying left and right from the transfusions. There was no idea of blood types then. These scientists thought they were transferring blood from all different species, including at the final experiment, and most patients seemed to have only mild symptoms. Tucker thankfully reveals the answer to this; there probably wasn’t actually that much blood being transferred. The technology wasn’t really advanced enough until the 20th century, when luckily blood typing was also discovered.

The philosophical issues surrounding transfusion were also fascinating. Tucker explains in the book that she was inspired by George W. Bush’s statements against stem cell research. Many of the same arguments we hear now against stem cell research were employed in the battle against blood transfusions. That treatment saves lives every single day. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions, but it certainly provides much food for thought.

I haven’t even touched on the historical mystery that Tucker explores within the book, but it also works quite well and the threads of the book fit perfectly together. My only reservation is that parts of the book made me a bit queasy – I’m not even good with this sort of thing written in words! For someone who isn’t particularly bothered by descriptive language about transfusions, this wouldn’t be a problem.

Blood Work is a very engaging, fast paced narrative work of history that will appeal to any curious about the Scientific Revolution, how blood transfusions began, or even the issues surrounding experimentation on human beings. Recommended.

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