Bloodwork: Author Interview

Book CoverDestination: 17th Century Paris and London

Book: Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution (NEW 3/2011), by Holly Tucker

Although I love to read about history, I do not think of myself as a fan of scientific history–and to say that a book is about blood transfusions is enough to make me go hide in a closet. Yuck! Blood! Needles!

But Holly Tucker won me over with the finely crafted  Blood Work. This unlikely travel library addition made me think of the Cara Black mystery I recently read, Murder in the Latin Quarter, where the plot centers around research labs in present day Paris, mixed with Sandra Gulland’s  Mistress to the Sun, set in 17th century France. Blood Work reads more like historical fiction than a professorish explication of medical history. In fact, it reveals a centuries-old mystery.

Tucker begins with the shocking revelation that George Washington death may well have been speeded along  by blood letting, and she quotes a medieval “scientist” on phlebotomy (blood drawing):

Phlebotomy clears the mind, strengthens the memory, cleanses the stomach, dries up the brain, warms the marrow, sharpens the hearing, stops tears, encourages discrimination, develops the senses…produces a musical voice…..(and on and on).

I wanted to know more about how she made this science history into dramatic story-telling, so I e-mailed four questions to Holly Tucker.

A Traveler’s Library: Your research goes far beyond medical matters.  I’m thinking of a section where you go into detail about printing, for instance,and another on coffee, as here:

But the greatest find from South America had to be coffee, which was served with much ceremony in delicate, hand-painted porcelain cups imported from China. And one thing was certain: At the equivalent of almost four thousand dollars a pound, there could not be a better sign of…wealth and largesse.

Did you plan to use this kind of detailed background originally, or did it just evolve?

Holly Tucker: It’s precisely these fascinating details about seventeenth-century London and Paris that helped me make the decision to place Blood Work with a larger trade press, rather a more specialized university press.  Academic writing, for better or worse, tends to leave out so many of the visceral details that… got me excited about history in the first place.  I wanted readers to be able to see, smell and hear what life on the dirty streets and in scientific laboratories were like.

ATL: You had an “agenda” for writing this book beyond just revealing the little-known mystery surrounding blood transfusion.  Talk a little about that, and how you think this book will help.

HT: My first agenda is to get folks interested in history. There are just so many fascinating, and sometimes troubling, stories of our past worth exploring.  But it’s true, Blood Work has another, underlying message.  And it’s an important one, I think.

When writing Blood Work, I was struck by the overlaps between the past and the present.  Just as the seventeenth century was struggling with how and whether science could create hybrid creatures as a result of transfusion, we too are wondering about the role science plays in redefining “humanness”  (what it is and when it begins).

There were real concerns that, by transfusing animal blood into humans, science could be toying with the boundaries of human life itself.  Controversies swirling around cloning, interspecies genetic research and human embryological stem cell research [today] are very similar.  Should society try to restrain scientific inquiry?  And if so, at what price?

I wanted to offer up the past as a space where we can have respectful discussions about these critical questions still of deep importance to us now.

ATL:Were you ever tempted to turn this into fiction and invent a legendary French detective?

HT: Not really.  Actually, sometimes I felt like the detective!  [The information] wasn’t always easy to find; in fact, the book took nearly five years of research and regular travel to archives in Paris, London and Rome for me to be sure that I had all of the facts straight.  But I just knew that if I stayed focused, it would all come together.

I’ve tried my hand at historical fiction once. It wasn’t pretty.  I guess that I’m just meant to be a nonfiction writer.  My editor agrees, I think! 

ATL: You did a lot of library research, but did you also do atmospheric research by traveling to Paris and London? If so, were there any particular insights from what you found?

HT: I guess that I learned that you can’t take anything for granted.  While the facades of many Parisian buildings are still standing, the grandeur that was once behind those facades has either faded or disappeared.  Atmospheric research is best when done in conjunction with library research, especially research with original documents.

Still, I was absolutely overcome with joy the day that I snuck into the Marais estate that had once been the home of Jean Habert de Montmor, the nobleman who financed the first transfusion experiments.  I’m sure that the concièrge, its superintendent, thought I was a bit nuts myself when he saw me standing in the grand courtyard–mouth agape.  It was exactly as I had imagined it. Here was the sundial that had been engraved high in building’s interior wall.  And there was the grand staircase that Jean-Baptiste Denis had climbed the night of he transfused the mentally-ill Antoine Mauroy.  Once Monsieur Charpentier understood what I was stammering about and why I had tears in my eyes, we spent a wonderful afternoon exploring together, each teaching the other about the estate’s rich history.

Holly Tucker
Holly Tucker, photo by John Breinig

Holly Tucker is a professor at Vanderbilt University, where she teaches the history of medicine and French. In addition to academic publications, her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New Scientist, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Christian Science Monitor. She lives in Nashville with her husband, her daughter, two dogs, and two jail-breaking gerbils.

Disclaimer: Blood Work was supplied to me by the publisher for a review. I will give it away to someone chosen at random from commenters. (U.S. Resident, over 18, please).

Does learning about historic events that took place in the location you are traveling to help you enjoy the place? Do you like reading about the history of science? Holly is also the historian behind the intriguing blog devoted to history literature, Wonders and Marvels. Follow her on Twitter, @history_geek. See the following article for her favorite books for travelers.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

12 thoughts on “Bloodwork: Author Interview

  1. Bravo to anyone who writes a book which causes the readers to be more interested in History!! I definitely want to read this book! Vera you are going to be the death of me yet- introducing all these great books to me- I have books piled up on my…half read…waiting to be read…books on my nook…read …half read and waiting to be read…haha!

  2. I agree with the others who’ve commented, this goes on my ‘must read’ list. We will be spending a bit of time in Paris this spring and I will be thinking of Holly’s comment about the facades that remain. . .
    Thanks much for a most interesting review and interview.

  3. I have always been fascinated that the barbers of old also doubled as surgeons providing services such as blood-letting and the removal of bad teeth (hence the stripey red and white pole). The idea of medieval surgery makes the mind boggle.

  4. I agree with Holly when she said “I guess that I learned that you can’t take anything for granted.” Good interview, and thank you for sharing! – r

  5. This book sounds right up my alley. I love reading about “old” science. Also, is it available in Ebook? for Kindle specifically?

    1. Ah, yes, I know that “mouth agape” feeling well when visiting historic places.
      And Laura, a quick check of Amazon tells me YES, it is available for Kindle. Follow the link to the book title in my post and when you order, A Traveler’s Library will benefit. Yes, Amazon associates now get credit for Kindle orders as well as print books.

  6. This goes on my Must Read list. It combines the proteins and vegetables of my reading – history and science, and history of science – with the dessert: mysteries. Sounds like a feast to me.

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