Earlier this week, my review of Blood Work by Holly Tucker for The Cap Times posted online. This was my second “professional” review (the first being Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress), and I have to say, this one was a lot easier to write. I think that’s because Blood Work is nonfiction, which is much more up my alley.
Blood Work is a history of blood transfusion in France between 1665 and 1668. At that time, French and English scientists were in a race to see who could perform a successful transfusion the soonest, first focusing on animals and then people. The first person to perform a successful animal-to-human transfusion was a French physician named Jean-Baptiste Denis, a doctor who was not a part of the French medical establishment at the time. In 1667 he transfused the blood of a calf into a well-known Parisian madman, Antoine Mauroy.
The experiment was initially deemed a success. Mauroy went home with, it seemed, no ill effects, and Denis celebrated his accomplishment. Yet, when Denis went to check on his patient some days later, Mauroy was very sick. Within days Mauroy was dead, and Denis was accused of murder. In the court battles that followed, blood transfusion was effectively outlawed in France, which ultimately led to the end of blood experimentation in Europe for the next 150 years.
When I interviewed the author, Holly Tucker, for my story, she talked about how a lot of the inspiration for working on the book was trying to solve the Denis case — did Mauroy die of natural causes, or was he murdered (by someone else) as a way to discredit Denis’ experiment and prevent blood transfusion from becoming an accepted scientific practice?
As you can probably imagine, solving a murder that’s nearly 350 years old is no easy task, and Holly told me there were times during her research process when she wasn’t sure she would ever figure it out. In fact, she told me there was a point in researching the book where she thought she might give up on it entirely. Here’s the story (with the names of characters removed to prevent spoilers):
When I wrote the proposal for this book and it was picked up by W.W. Norton, I was sure that [the murderer] was Mr. X. I went to France and I spent weeks and weeks in the archives, and I thought for sure I was going to find what I was looking for, and I didn’t.
I came back, and then I went to London and Paris doing all this blood research, but I couldn’t get close to the murders. … This was late in the game – I started researching in 2005 and in 2009 I still didn’t know who did it. I thought, “Oh my god! Now I’ve got a book contract with a major press!”
I sat in my study at home and spent a month just in this funk. I truly just decided I was going to pack it up for good. I didn’t have the nerve to call my agent or my editor, but I started to pack up my research. Before I did – I had thousands of pages of documents and research notes – I decided I would do it methodically and inventory the boxes before I put them into storage.
I was going document by document and was about halfway through the process – feeling more and more depressed – and I found in this stack of papers that I’d ordered from the French National Library that I had never really looked at. They arrived, and I put them in a pile and I forgot about them.
I started to look through and sitting in there was [a key piece of evidence]. Then I took another several months, and another trip back to France, researching Mr. Y and Mr. Z, that honestly, I’d never heard of before. … It was so funny that these guys had been hidden for centuries, but once you find their names its as if they wanted to be found.
I was getting closer and closer, but [I wanted to be sure because] I was accusing these guys of murder. Whether they’re dead or not there’s an ethical aspect – you just don’t randomly accuse people of murder. I came back from France and I was working in my study and there was this ah-ha moment. I thought, “I have enough now, I know, I know.”
And it was a little too much, so I hopped in my car and went to the gym because this was more than I could stand. [When I left] my husband had seen something was up, but I didn’t want to jinx it yet. But I got on the phone and called him at work in tears, and he goes, “Honey, honey, what’s wrong?”
I go, “I found them, I found them!” and he and I were both delighted. And I just sobbed because I’d spent almost four years of my life hunting down these murders and there they were.
That was the most delicious moment in my research life, actually. It’s a funny moment – to be in tears at the YMCA with your husband because you solved a 400-year-old cold case. That’s when you know that this is not just a day job.
Is that not a great story? I wanted it to fit into my review/interview so, so badly, but I just couldn’t make it work. I guess that’s why I have a blog!
Blood Work was a very fun book to read, and I hope the review gets that across. The narrative about the competitive history of blood transfusion is a great mystery, and the information about the intersection of science and spirituality at the time fascinated me. The early transfusion experiments were pretty grisly, but the book makes a convincing case that it’s important to understand science of the past and use the lessons to inform science of today.
Holly and I got to have coffee yesterday afternoon, and I can tell you she’s just as nice in person and she appears online, which is awesome. She’s active on Twitter as @history_geek, and maintains a history blog Wonders & Marvels. You should check her out in both places. And now… I’m rambling, so I’ll just have to be done. Somebody remind me not to try and write posts after 11 p.m. on a work night, ok?
Any other questions about Blood Work or meeting Holly? Leave questions or thoughts in the comments!