On a cold day in 1667, the renegade Jean-Baptiste Denis plucked an insane man off the streets of Paris and transfused him with cow’s blood.
A few days later, the patient was dead – and the transfusionist soon faced murder charges…
Set in seventeenth-century London and Paris, Blood Work (W.W. Norton, 2011) is a story of political infighting, professional backstabbing, and the struggle to control the most powerful commodity in seventeenth-century Europe: knowledge.
Using blood transfusion as a frame for the larger social history of the Scientific Revolution, I track the confluence of cultural, political, and religious forces in a world undergoing radical transformation as science and society changed at a pace never before imagined.
I came across the fascinating – and bizarre – story of early animal-to-human transfusions as many professors do…while preparing a lecture on the history of blood circulation (discovered in 1628 by William Harvey) for one of my history of medicine classes at Vanderbilt University. My work on the Denis case would soon lead me through the violent and dirty streets of early Paris, into the affluent homes of French nobles, and across the Channel to a plague-ridden and fire-destroyed London.
As I hunted down answers to the madman’s death, I became fascinated by how one of the most common procedures in medicine today – blood transfusion – had such a long and fraught history. With the possibilities of genetic manipulation, stem cell research, and cloning, I do think we’re also deep in a similar moment of “Scientific Revolution.”
Time will only tell which of our modern discoveries stick, and which ones are cast aside for another 150 years like transfusion was after the Denis trial. And like the early transfusionists, we have to ask the same time-worn questions they did: How far are we willing push the limits of science? And at what price?
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