One of the joys of my blogging life is getting to read books before they are officially published. This year, the Science Online swag bag included Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution, a book that kept me occupied for a few days. Science? Check. Medicine? Check. Murder mystery? Check.
Holly Tucker, a faculty member of Vanderbilt University, weaves a number of historical and political intrigues into a story of medical experimentation that results in murder.
The saga proceeds in the 1600s. French and British physicians and scientists race to learn new facts about anatomy and physiology. Great rewards awaited the first to publish (gee, does that sound familiar?), and governments (royalty) began to fund academies to help assure the place of their investigators in the race for knowledge. Within France, where the murder in question occurs, political clashes between a private academy begun by Henri-Louis de Montmor and that funded through the crown, as well as the Parisian medical establishment versus other schools within the country, complicate the interpretation and dissemination of experimental data (once again, sound familiar?).
The primary character, Jean-Baptiste Denis, longs to make his mark in Parisian society, despite being an upstart of lesser birth trained outside of the Parisian school. He becomes convinced that transfusion will provide transport for his social goals, and begins experiments with dog-to-dog blood transfers. These procedures are described in excruciating detail - after all, there was no anesthesia, so dogs were muzzled and tied to tables for the procedure. Anticoagulation was unknown, so blood had to be transferred directly from one dog to the other without storage, and the transfer took place through small metal stems and quills. The donor dog underwent cut-down to access an artery, and that dog's blood pressure drove the blood into the recipient's vein, also accessed via a cut-down. Going from a large dog to a small one seemed to work better, and the small dog often seemed "livelier" after the procedure. The donor dog? Not so much.
He then wanted to proceed to animal-to-human transfusion. This proposition scared folks, not because of the issue of transfusion reactions not yet described; no, people were terrified that they could become physical chimeras. Receive the blood of a calf, and you might wake up with the face of a cow. The artwork in the book shows these amazing chimera images!
Denis eventually found "volunteers" for his experiments, the first a desperately ill 16-year-old boy who the barber-surgeons had bled more than 20 times. For his donor, he chose a sheep. What could be more helpful than the blood of the lamb, the symbol of Jesus' sacrifice? The boy felt better the next day, apparently cured of his two month fevers. Denis then persuaded a butcher, perhaps the one who provided the lamb, to undergo the procedure. He also did well and took the lamb home for supper.
Denis immediately reported his success, and then decided to go for the big-time. Antoine Mauroy, once a valet, now roamed the streets of Paris raving, an infamous mad man. Denis planned to transfuse the blood of a calf into Mauroy to attempt to heal his illness. The transfusion reportedly quiets his troubled soul, and he returns to his wife, Perrine, a calmer, saner husband. After a few weeks, she returns to Denis requesting another treatment because Mauroy's ravings have returned. Denis obliges, and a few weeks later, Antoine is dead.
I love mysteries, and I love biomedical science, so the book resonated with me. My favorite parts were some of the anecdotes illustrating various points, especially those that involved kidney disorders. I am, after all, a nephrologist.
Animals and their parts were common folk remedies of the time. Below follows a cure for kidney stones:
In the month of May distill Cow-dung, then take two live Hares, and strangle them in their blood, then take the one of them, and put it into an earthen vessel of a pot, and cover it well with mortar made of horse dung and hay, and bake it in an oven with household bread and let it still in an oven two or three days, until the hare be baked or dried to powder; then beat it well and keep it for your use. The other Hare you must flew, and then take out the guts only; then distill all the rest, and keep this water; then take at the new and full of the moon, or any other time, three mornings together as much of this powder as will lie on six pence, with two spoonfuls of each water; and it will break any stone in the kidneys.
Now that makes remembering to take a once-a-day pill seem easy.
I also loved learning that urine can be used as invisible ink!
Blood Work provides an interesting trip into the history of medicine and its scientific roots. The book becomes available on March 21.