The Bat Segundo Show: Holly Tucker

Holly Tucker appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #388. She is most recently the author of Blood Work.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering why his bank statements come back bloody.

Author: Holly Tucker

Subjects Discussed: Early philosophical notions of blood, ill humors, whether science without the scientific method can be adequately called science, the Royal Society, William Harvey and the discovery of circulation, Descartes and mind/body dualism, the ethics of unmitigated animal torture, Sir Christopher Wren’s city plan and the Great Fire of London, the connections between architecture and medicine, Claude Perrault, Da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man, the physiology of architecture, Wren’s animal experiments at Oxford, early scientific interest in the brain, French rejection of English scientific theory in the 17th century, medical theory and medical practice, questioning everything as a sport, prostitutes vs. Protestants, claims that the English are liars, royal censorship and Henry Oldenburg, the medical culture wars between France and England, monarchies and clear ideas, staving off espionage issues while pursuing science, the Parisian medical elite, the role of women in 17th century medicine, Jean-Baptiste Denis, the remarkable sacrifice of Antoine Mauroy, throwing a scientific temper tantrum, the charming nature of megalomaniacs, whether early scientists took delight in making dogs miserable, Robert Hooke’s tracheotomy experiments, writing about dogs being muzzled and experimented upon with a dog sitting at your feet, remorse in early medicine, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, Arthur Coga, experimenting upon the poor and the vulnerable, Bethlem Royal Hospital, the shifting nature of medical consent over the centuries, and the relative “grisliness” of medicine.


Correspondent: I know bloodletting. And I know bleeding. Not personally. But I do understand that its historical basis was based off of trying to release the ill humors out of the blood. And all that.

Tucker: Absolutely.

Correspondent: The big question I think we should start off with, so that people know what we’re talking about, is: How did such a primitive approach to blood become something? Why did people start thinking, “Oh! We could probably use this for transfusion purposes! We could probably use this for transferring one blood to another!” It seems, in light of its early use before the 17th century, that there was nothing in the cards to suggest that human beings would come up with something like this.

Tucker: No. The fact that they did in the 17th century is, in itself, the story that we’re telling. Because for millennia, they believed that the body was just this mix of fluids. As you said, humors. Blood, phlegm, bile, black bile. Ill health was when those fluids were out of balance. And good health was when they were in balance. We laugh now about bloodletting. Because we think it’s the most gruesome and horrific thing. And it was. But it made total sense to them. That they would need to — well, that and purging and laxatives. So what you tried to do was rid the body, where you could, of all these foul humors. So you’re going to ask me about how they got to blood transfusion.

Correspondent: Yes.

Tucker: I’m trying to make my answer nice and compact for you.

Correspondent: Oh, I see!

Tucker: Because what happened — I will go for the next ten minutes.

Correspondent: Well, go for a protracted answer. Protracted answers, by the way, are welcome here.

Tucker: So when you start dozing off, you tell me.

Correspondent: Oh no. No, no, no.

Tucker: And jump in with questions.

Correspondent: There won’t be any dozing here. I assure you. I’m fascinated by the subject. We’re talking about blood! We’re talking about gore!

Tucker: Gore.

Correspondent: We’re talking about viscera. Okay? You note that some of the natural philosophers were so duped by their own success that they couldn’t actually judge the results objectively. Edmund King reported that sheep he had infused with milk and sugar were more than ordinarily sweet. I’m curious, just talking about the Royal Society. We’ll get into the French later. What were some of the chief factors that made the Royal Society carry on with these things without this scientific oversight that we now know in the 20th and the 21st centuries? Can we really call these early efforts “science” if there was — well, first of all, they lacked the vigorous oversight. But, second of all, the unmitigated torture of animals, which we can also get into.

Tucker: Well, I would say that what they were doing was science. They believed that what they were doing was science. In fact, early blood transfusion happened because of one of the biggest and most important scientific discoveries in medicine, which was the discovery of blood circulation, right? And William Harvey was very methodical about how he went about discovering blood circulation in 1628. So he was really confused by this idea of humors. He shouldn’t have been. Because it had been the dominant way of viewing the body for millennia, as I said. He said that there has to be a better explanation. Or at least there has to be a good scientific explanation about how these humors work. And he was suspect about the whole idea that blood was produced in the stomach and then was distilled into the liver and moved up to the heart, where it burned off like a furnace, and that breathing was a way to stoke fire and also blow off the fumes. And that’s what they believed up until Harvey. So he started to do some detailed methodical experiments by, first, dissections. Animal and human. Looking at how much blood was in the heart. And then he noticed in a human heart that there was about two ounces of human blood in the heart. Multiply that by the number of heartbeats. He found this obscene number. Forty-one pounds of blood would have to be produced in a half hour. So he said, “This cannot be.” So then he started doing experiments on live animals. Particularly coldblooded animals. And he said, “Aha. No. Blood is circulating.” So you know, for as much as we look back and, yeah, there’s a lot to laugh about in previous periods.

Correspondent: A lot to laugh about. Torturing animals? A barrel of laughs.

Tucker: Okay. A lot to laugh about as far as how they understood the body. And the way the worldview dictated the questions they could ask and the answers they could then get. Because it’s a completely different philosophical, economical, and political framework that we have now. Yeah. Torturing animals is not a cool thing. It never has been. It never will be. But there too, you can start to see what’s happening. It came from a notion of the body and the mind and the soul being distinct. And that’s an idea that’s coming out in the 17th century in the works of, for example, Rene Descartes. Quiz. Who’s Rene Descartes?

Correspondent: He’s some guy who was all about thinking. Maybe therefore. Something along those lines?

Tucker: Maybe “I think therefore I am.” We associate him with the scientific method, right? My daughter is in grade school and she just did one of her first science fair projects and came home and did the poster. And it was almost like watching Cartesian indoctrination in her science. Because he put that idea forward and he also put that idea forward along with another one — which was mind/body dualism. He said, “Hmmm. What differentiates animals from humans? Both animals and humans have bodies. And those bodies are very likely similar. Maybe they’re machines.” And this is the age of hydraulics. This is science being invented. Barometers, you name it. So it makes sense that they’re viewing the body as a machine. And he says, “Well, if we broke machines in bodies, there has to be something that is different. Well, we have minds. We think. We speak. We have souls.” And those souls and the capacity for thought can’t be in the body. Because animals, he said, don’t have that. And so if we take the soul of an animal, and they become nothing more than machines, then it’s a bit like working on your car. Are you really torturing that animal? Now I’m not saying that I think that. But that’s what Descartes allowed the natural philosophers, as scientists were called, to be able to do. It’s to start taking apart those machines. Those animals.

Correspondent: We’ll get more specific into animal torture in just a bit. But I do want to actually jump off…

Tucker: That’s a nice segue.

The Bat Segundo Show #388: Holly Tucker (Download MP3)

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