Review: Blood Work-A Tale of Medicine & Murder in the Scientific Revolution by Holly Tucker

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (March 21, 2011)
  • ISBN-10: 0393070557
  • Source: Publisher

In 1667 Jean Denis, a physician, transfused animal blood into the body of Antoine Mauroy, a mentally ill man.  Not once, but several times.  Days later Mauroy died & Denis was accused of murder.  At this time, a battle raged on regarding the concept of transfusions: proponents saw it as a way to cure deadly illnesses while opponents worried it was going against the laws of nature.

While Blood Work is a non-fiction book it reads like fiction. Using historically accurate details, Tucker reveals the true murderers, all the while educating the reader on struggle between science & society in 17th century Europe.

Early transfusion procedures did not involve human to human transfusion, but animal to human transfusions.  The concept of transfusions were tied to society’s obsessions with blood and its purpose within he human body.  Bloodletting was a cure-all for every ailment.  Bloodletting wasn’t performed by doctors, however, but instead barber-surgeons.  The same man who gave a shave & a haircut was also entrusted with this grisly task, as well as tooth pulling and trepanning (skull drilling).  They often traveled from home to home, using the same barbaric tools on every patient. It wasn’t until the 20th century that bloodletting became and outdated and unpopular means of treating illness

Providing this bit of detail as to the mindset of society in this century allows the reader to truly grasp how “naive” society was regarding the human body.  Further study into these “treatments” were prevented by religious beliefs and morals of the time.

The author also compares the actions of our forefathers to the current debate about stem cell research. How any illnesses can society’s doctors cure & prevent if given the opportunity to study this in more detail?

Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution is multiple books in one: a historical recollection of medical practices, a murder mystery, and a study of society’s influence on advancements in the medical field.  It’s quite the dense text; it’s not something one can sit down and read in one sitting.  The level of research Holly performed to write this book astounded me; my book is literally littered with Post-it flags marking passages. Additionally, the detailed period illustrations throughout the book really add depth to the story, providing visual evidence of the practices of the time.

This book isn’t one I would recommend to just anyone.  Frankly, considering it is a nonfiction book, it’s not one that I would normally read.  But the detail provided, the murder case in the background, really got me excited about this book.  Fans of history, of social cultures & issues, and yes, fans of crime fiction & mystery, will be drawn to this book. Highly recommended.

9 thoughts on “Review: Blood Work-A Tale of Medicine & Murder in the Scientific Revolution by Holly Tucker

  1. I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed the book! I won a copy on Goodreads and have been waiting for it to arrive. I’ve found myself reading lots of nonfiction lately, and Blood Work sounds like such an interesting historical story.

  2. Isn’t it interesting how non-fiction books have subtitles that are so… DRAMATIC sometimes? This one definitely has a subtitle (not sure that is the correct word to use, but I am referring to the words after the dash/colon) that brings me in more than the title itself does.

    Sounds like a fascinating book. Does it explain why they used animals instead of humans for transfusing blood? Something to do with the humors?

    • Yes…Holly goes into great detail the “reasoning” behind the medical practices: humors, phases of the moon, etc.

  3. I love non-fiction, so this book definitely appeals to me. I didn’t realize how complex it was, though, so thanks for the review!

  4. When you mentioned this on Twitter, I knew I had to pop over and read your review. Yes, it sounds perfect for me – social history, and written in a way that makes the subject totally approachable.

    My online book group is reading this for May … am looking forward to it!

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