Cultural phenomenon, in a cultural light, fascinates me. I picked up Blood Work by Holly Tucker because of this fact. Medicine, or at least “modern” medicine, is really quite new (blood types weren’t discovered until nearly the turn of the 20th Century, for example) so the idea of performing blood transfusions at a time when basic understandings of the human body and the world were, in some ways, very different than today intrigues me. Tucker didn’t disappoint. The book is narrative and a little too biographical for me, the reader gets a good sense of people’s basic cultural (religious, social, economic) framework in conjunction with this very heady undertaking by (half of) the preeminent medical practitioners of the time. Some quotes that I found particularly interesting:
“When William Harvey plotted the circular path of blood, he was also describing an elaborate human machine composed of pumps, valves, and tubes. And it was through circulation — both as a metaphor and a scalable model — that [Christopher] Wren had expressed his radical new vision for the city of London following the Great Fire. For Wren a new layout for the city would not only cure London’s ills: The plan was the ultimate physical representation of a mechanistic human body and a celebration of the circulation models that the architect had spent so much time exploring in his early career at Oxford. The city would function like a well-oiled machine, moving people and goods as smoothly as the heart pumped blood through the body.” (54) I love the city/body/machine metaphor that seems to get so mechanically convoluted. It describes the “new” way of thinking at the time and shows too that we still very much think in terms of this four hundred year old metaphor.
“As with most everything in this ostentatiously elite society, the telescopes had been mounted at great expense as a display of access to knowledge — and, like so many other tools of science at the time, a fashion statement.” (79)
“In contrast to Descartes’ plenum, in which particles occupied every bit of space seen and unseen, [Pierre] Gassendi posited instead the presence of gaps and holes. These gaps and holes prevented us from mastering the mysteries of nature. Something had to be present to fully understand it: Certainty cannot follow from emptiness.” (83) I can see both of these ideas at work
The reason for my rating the book as I did ***(*) is because I thought it was somewhat too biographical for my liking, but well-written and interesting throughout. Definitely worth the quick read.
Tucker, Holly. Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2011.