Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution

Written by Holly Tucker
Review by Kristen Hannum

Who would have guessed that the earliest human blood transfusion was in 1667? Or that it transfused a dog’s blood into the patient? Or that the man survived! This history tells the story of early French and English physician/scientists racing to discover blood’s secrets. They had much to learn: medical schools still taught the ancient theory that blood made a one-way trip from the stomach to the heart to be burned as fuel. Respiration, they believed, just let off steam from the heart engine. Transfusions also bumped up against the Church’s teaching that there was a unity between body and soul. Transfusing a dog’s soulless blood into a human being was very dangerous business indeed.

The author is an associate professor at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health, and Society. That academic weight shows only in the references, however, where it becomes clear that she’s used an enormous number of primary sources. The narrative reveals simply a good writer with a feel for suspense. Tucker tells her story as simply as possible considering its complexities of medicine, science, philosophy, religion, and law. I was, however, overwhelmed for a couple chapters by all of the dog deaths. Blood Work isn’t for sissies.