Deadly transfusion

By Michael Washburn
Globe Correspondent / March 20, 2011

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Once upon a time, the heart’s heat wasn’t merely a metaphor for passion — it was, people believed, quite literally, the fire that kept us alive. Rather than a circulatory system, humans possessed a sort of central heating system, with blood running from the stomach to the chest, where our furnace-like hearts burned the scarlet liquid for fuel. Breathing released the steam. Hot-bloodedness caused many illnesses, and the logical, traditional, and medically approved course of treatment was the practice of bloodletting. How else to reduce the volume of overheated blood in the body? In a time when barber-surgeons executed surgical procedures, they packed their lancets beside their shears, bleeding people’s veins when they weren’t nicking their ears. For centuries this was the height of medical sophistication, and like many, well, habits of the heart, change came slowly.

Holly Tucker explores the stubborn nature of such science in her ingenious, engaging, and disquieting history of medicine’s early misadventures with blood transfusion, “Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution.’’ An apt title, to be sure, which immediately prompts two observations. First, in early modern medical practices no reliable distinction existed between medicine and murder. The latter often seemed a diagnostic tool of the former. Second, and more urgent, all revolutions, even scientific revolutions, catalyze immediate, violent counterrevolutions. More on that in a moment, but first the story.

In 1667, renegade French physician Jean-Baptiste Denis found fame then infamy by conducting an unprecedented set of transfusions of calf’s blood into the insane Antoine Mauroy. Despite our contemporary knowledge of the peril of cross-species transfusion, Mauroy appeared to thrive for several weeks after the procedures, even requesting an additional transfusion lest his “frenzy’’ return. Sometime after a final, aborted attempt at a transfusion, however, Mauroy was dead, Denis was framed for murder, and the medical establishment halted research into blood transfusion.

Within this basic framework, Tucker masterfully narrates a rich tale about the competing passions of faith, politics, and knowledge.

Tucker argues that Mauroy died from arsenic poisoning administered by “enemies of the experiment,’’ a group of authorities aligned with the prestigious and influential Paris Faculty of Medicine, an institution that prided itself on adhering to the medical principles of Galen, unchanged since the second century.

In an age before anesthesia or a clear understanding of infection, opponents of transfusion did not oppose the potential health hazards of the procedure. Rather, their concerns were religious. In the age of Descartes’s revolutionary cogito, debates raged about the seat of the soul, with blood often considered the soul’s vessel or servant. Anyone willing to jettison centuries of scientific precedent in favor of a fantastical idea of blood transfusion begged for damnation. Minimally, transfusing animal blood into humans threatened creation of a hybrid.

This concern was, strangely, viewed as potentially therapeutic by transfusionists. Tucker notes that The Philosophical Transactions, a 17th-century medical journal, claimed, “Animals are less subject to the ‘sadness, envy, anger, melancholy, disgust, and generally all the passions that trouble the life of man and corrupt the whole substance of the blood.’ ’’ In effect, tranfusionists sought the commingling of human and animal attributes.

“In any era,’’ Tucker writes, “blood gets to the heart of who we are, or at least, who we want to believe ourselves to be.’’ This remains as accurate today as in the 1600s, when people were imprisoned and the mentally ill were poisoned to protect a scientific understanding of salvation. The Red Cross, for example, kept segregated blood banks well into the 20th century, lest transfusion promote racial contagion.

Much of Tucker’s story, including the tranfusionists’ ideas, seems absurd by today’s standards. But at least they were wrong for the right reasons: willingness to examine society’s fundamental preconceptions. What’s chilling about these tales from the scientific counterrevolution is that “science’’ confidently distinguished itself from superstition: Learned men condescended to the witch doctor on one hand, but, to take but one example, when the brother of an eminent Parisian physician “was likely struck by a severe case of typhoid fever, both brothers felt certain that the illness had been brought on by sleeping in sheets that had been dried near roses.’’ Ah, the science of certainty.

Michael Washburn, a research associate at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at CUNY, can be reached at

BLOOD TALE: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution
By Holly Tucker
Norton, 304 pp., illustrated, $25.95