Of Blood Transfusions and Beastliness

The attendees at January’s ScienceOnline conference walked away with some great SWAG. One of the best freebies: Holly Tucker‘s new book Blood Work, due to be released next week. I recently had the great pleasure of reading the book, which makes use of gripping narrative (hello, murder mystery!) to trace the history of blood transfusions in 17th century Europe. It’s a great read–and I’m not just saying that because I got it for free or because I met Holly in person and found her to be utterly charming (though both of those things are true.)

A dog-headed man

For me, one of the book’s most delightful surprises is that the debates surrounding early blood transfusions sound a lot like the public discussion we’re having over biotechnology today.  The first human transfusions involved taking the blood of animals–mostly dogs, cows, and sheep–and putting it into human veins. At the time, these interspecies transfers raised all sorts of philosophical questions about the differences between humans and animals, the essence of biological identity, and the consequences of crossing the boundaries that exist in nature.

These turn out to be the very same questions that underlie my book project (which is about modern biotechnology and the modification of animal bodies). Excited by this fortuitous overlap, I decided to give Holly a call to discuss some of these issues.  An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

EA: Today, blood transfusions are a routine medical intervention. But they weren’t always. How did doctors first get the idea to take the blood from one creature and put it into another?

HT: There was nothing that could have been more counterintuintive in the 17th century than to do blood transfusions. For millennia the first therapeutic instinct was to do bloodletting, to take blood out to help a patient. It was really only after 1628, when William Harvey discovered the circulation of blood, that natural philosophers began to do experiments infusing different products–such as blood, beer, opium, milk–straight into the veins and arteries of animals. The animals that they’re infusing die, stagger, whine, weep–there are a whole bunch of stories about drunken dogs.

So from there, from infusion, the next logical step was, ‘Well, if we can put all of this stuff in the veins and the arteries, I wonder what else we can do.’ And that’s when they considered that we might be able to nourish a recipient through the blood of another. It really took several steps, several stages, from 1628 until about 1665, for early modern natural philosophers to come up with the idea of blood transfusion itself because it was so counterintuitive.

EA: It doesn’t surprise me to hear that doctors experimented on animals first. What did surprise me was reading that the first human transfusions involved putting animal blood into human bodies. Why did the early transfusionists choose animals to be the donors?

HT: Well, to back that question up, it was a major step in the 17th century for them to be reaching for animals in the first place. They weren’t really doing animal experimentation, and certainly not on live animals, until the turn of the 17th century. Much of that became more ritualized by Rene Descartes’s theory of mind-body dualism–that human and animal bodies were little more than machines and that the main difference between humans and animals was that humans had souls. And those souls were disembodied. So if you have an animal machine that reflects the human machine, then it makes sense that you could do experiments on animals and not the humans. And if you do see animals as being soulless, then you have a moral justification to perform those experiments.

That helps us explain why they reached for animals for blood. First, these were very dangerous experiments, and there was a concern that the donor would die. Also, according to the mindset of the period, animals had pure blood. They didn’t drink, they didn’t swear. Some of the first experiments were done with lambs’ blood, [which had religious connotations], so that blood was considered to be more pure, more curing than human blood.

EA: But at the same time, the idea of taking blood from a beast, and putting it into the veins and arteries of a human–that troubled some people.

HT: The issue was that for as much as the experimentalists wanted to believe that the blood of animals was coming from a soulless machine, the mind-body dualism of Descartes was hotly contested. At once, it was extremely useful for natural philosophers to be able to use that as a way to justify their vivisectionist experiments. But what if Descartes was wrong? What if animals did have a soul? What if the soul is in the blood? Now that we’re transfusing the blood into humans, what will happen? And that’s precisely where the fears of chimerism and animal-human hybrids and the ability of science to create these not-quite-human, not-quite-animal monsters comes into play.

EA: For those who were frightened by this possibility, what was the fear, exactly? That humans would take on animal characteristics?

HT: Absolutely. It’s that humans would take on animal characteristics, that you could have quite literally humans who barked and that you could actually, as well, mutate identities. Samuel Pepys, a very well-known diarist in England, joked, “Well, I think it could be a pretty interesting experiment. What if we transfused the blood of an Archbishop into a Quaker?” And now you’re getting into questions of: Could you not just mutate abilities? Could you be enacting some sort of change in beliefs in the very soul of the human being?

Also, this is happening right at the period of New World exploration. People are going to every remote place they can think of and coming up against beasts and people they have never seen before. I can only imagine what a European who looked at a giraffe for the first time would think. And there are all these legends about dog-headed men, sheep with human faces, mermaids who are out there flipping around in the ocean. All of that has existed since antiquity, in Greek and Roman myths. But now, people are going out to the New World and coming back with these stories. The idea that science could actually be creating these things was extremely unsettling, not just for the lay community but also for the scientists themselves.

EA: You point out in the book that humans have had a longstanding fascination with hybrid creatures and monsters. Why are humans so compelled by these kinds of boundary crossings?

HT: I think that would be a very good question for sociologists. I think we’ve always been frightened and fascinated by things that are outside the normative. Think about the absolute fascination with freak shows in the 19th and early 20th. Look through the Guinness Book of World Records. I was fascinated by that as a kid–the man with the world’s longest fingernails. I think it’s part and parcel of the human experience to imagine things that go beyond the day-to-day.

What was troubling was that blood transfusions developed during the Scientific Revolution, when there was a strong classificatory impulse, when people wanted to make order out of the natural world. But there’s some things that go beyond our comprehension. And it was doubly incomprehensible that science could engineer these very things that are so mind-bending.

EA: It seems as though there was a contradiction in the attitudes of those who performed animal-to-human blood transfusions. On the one hand, they weren’t worried about turning a human into a cow. But at the same time, they were picking cows–or dogs or sheep or other animals–because they believed that some behavioral characteristic of that animal was what would make the blood especially therapeutic. (For instance, perhaps a transfusion from a cow, considered to be a mild-mannered animal, would have a calming influence on a patient.)

HT: You’re right–there is a contradiction. And that comes from a long history, as well. For example, if a man and a woman were having a hard time conceiving, it was recommended that they take stag testicles, dry them, powder them, and sprinkle them on a big steak to enhance his virility. Certain animals have been associated with certain qualities. The question is: To what extent can these qualities be transferred and how much do we want them to be transferred? The question really reaches a head with transfusion.

EA: That’s a good segue to some of the issues we’re grappling with today, with the rise of genetic modification and transgenic creatures. Do you see parallels between the responses to transfusion in the 17th century and today’s public dialogue about modern genetic technologies?

HT: That is, for me, the most important point that the book makes. The technologies may be new but the questions are not. And the positioning, the stakes, and the ideological arguments are definitely not. Science can make the contours of what it means to be human actually fuzzy. New genetic technologies can require us to rewrite the boundaries of humanness. What does this mean for how we understand where life starts and where it ends? What does this mean regarding the moral status of what we are doing? If we have human DNA and animal DNA intermingling? What does it mean from a bioethical standpoint?

The fact of the matter is that all of these questions that we have are normal. I think they’re a stage we have to go through anytime we’re faced with biomedical innovation, especially innovation that gets to questions of the boundaries of humanness. It’s nothing new. All we can do is just be humble and look to the past–and think about how the future will actually write books about us and how we tried to make sense of our biomedical challenges.

Image: Wikimedia/Hartmann Schedel

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4 Responses to Of Blood Transfusions and Beastliness

  1. CM Doran says:

    Great interview and I agree…..the most important thing about this book is what we can learn about the past so as to go forward, ethically. Thanks for writing.

  2. Tyler says:

    Great interview! A pretty good (and quick) read on the history of blood is “5 Quarts” (Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Five-Quarts-Personal-Natural-History/dp/0345456882/ref=pd_sim_b_2) if you’re interested in even more info on the red stuff.

    Have a great one!

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