The world’s first experiments with blood transfusion occurred in the mid-1660s in England. The procedure, which was first carried out between dogs, was gruesome: the dogs were tied down, the arteries and veins in their necks opened, and blood transferred from one to another through quills (most likely made from goose feathers) inserted into the blood vessels. The experimentalist started and stopped the flow of blood by loosening and tightening threads tied with running knots around the dogs’ blood vessels. The blood of the “emittent” dog flowed from its carotid artery into a vein in the recipient’s neck while the recipient’s own blood ran out its carotid artery. According to physician Richard Lower, who described the operation in an essay published in 1666 in Philosophical Transactions, the world’s oldest scientific journal, the transfusion came to an end when the emittent dog began “to cry, and faint, and fall into Convulsions, and at last dye [sic].”
In our own day, blood transfusion has become an accepted, relatively uncontroversial medical therapy. We treat blood as a commodity, swapping units in and out of bodies as necessary. Yet in Lower’s time, it was wholly new, and such experiments—which he was one of the first to perform—were met with fear and controversy, much of which hung on a seemingly simple question: when blood passes from one body into another, what does it carry with it?
Shortly after Lower’s description of transfusion was published, the natural philosopher Robert Boyle released a series of questions about the effects of transfusion on the dog receiving blood, also in Philosophical Transactions. Boyle, like many of the early modern natural philosophers whose writings were published in Philosophical Transactions, was affiliated with the Royal Society, a national fellowship then newly founded for the promotion of scientific knowledge. The premise of many of Boyle’s questions was that blood transfusion might induce physical, mental, and psychological changes in the animal receiving blood. He asked: does transfusion change a dog of one breed into another? Does it alter a dog’s temperament? Can a “fierce” dog be made into a “cowardly” dog? If you transfuse blood from a dog that’s just been fed into a hungry dog, will the hungry dog still be hungry? If a dog has been taught to fetch and carry, could those learned behaviors be obliterated by repeated transfusions from untrained dogs? Will a dog with new blood still know its master?
To Boyle, transfusion promised the transformation of the very substance and being of biological creatures. As Holly Tucker recounts in her book Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution, Boyle’s questions reflect his interest in alchemical transmutation. Much of Boyle’s time was occupied with research in this esoteric science, the forerunner of modern chemistry. He actively sought the philosophical mercury, a compound that would transform base metals into gold. He once thought he had approached it when he observed how a small amount of quicksilver, mixed in the palm of his hand with gold dust, grew hot enough to melt the gold. In transfusion research, Boyle saw the possibilities for alchemical transmutations within living beings: when blood was transferred between bodies, he asked, what powers were carried with it? What made a living creature unique? Were the physical and mental components of identity in the blood?
Following Lower’s experiments, researchers were eager to leap forward, to try transfusing blood into a human subject. Yet, how to do it? They debated the procedure on and off throughout 1666 and most of 1667. Given that the procedure usually killed the “emittent,” a human-to-human transfusion was not possible. It was settled that a sheep would be the source of the blood for the Royal Society’s first transfusion into a human subject.
But the choice of a human recipient was more difficult. The Royal Society needed someone who was clearly unwell in some way: then they could make the argument that transfusion might improve his health. They also sought an educated person who could report reliably on transfusion’s effects on his body. Ultimately, they settled on Arthur Coga, mentally unstable, but educated—he knew Latin, and had spent some time as a clergyman. Coga’s mental illness might be cured by transfusion; yet it tended to render him unfit to report on the bodily experience of the procedure. The experiment was troubled from the start.
The Fellows of the Royal Society speculated that perhaps transfusion would “cool” Coga’s blood, restoring order to his mind. Such things had been seen before: blood was not the only body fluid with transmutationary potential. According to naval administrator Samuel Pepys, also a member of the Royal Society, at one meeting, a gentleman told a story of an old man who lived only on “woman’s milk,” finding that stronger food was too much for him. The milk affected his temperament. When he received it from an “angry, fretful woman,” he was an angry, fretful man. When she was “good-natured, patient,” he found himself so, as well.
In late 1667, as the Society moved forward with the research, things seemed to go well, at least initially: the Society paid Coga 20 shillings, according to Pepys, who thought it too little, given the danger inherent in the experiment. Lower and the physician Edmund King, who performed the operation, judged that Coga received 9 or 10 ounces of the sheep’s blood, passed from one body to the other through quills joined to silver pipes. A few days after his transfusion, Coga reported to the Society on its effects, presenting his remarks in Latin. Shortly thereafter, Pepys met Coga at a dinner party: he found that Coga spoke “very reasonably, and very well,” though he was “cracked a little in his head.”
But this relatively good report did not last: following a second transfusion, the research was soon stymied by public mockery and Coga’s apparent failure as a model experimental subject. Raucous gawkers in London’s unruly coffeehouses “endeavoured to debauch” Coga, as one observer wrote to another, and he spent his 20 shilling fee on drink. Alcohol was not only believed to blur the effects of the transfusion; more importantly, thus “debauched,” Coga was rendered totally unfit as a witness to the procedure’s effects on his body. A few months later, in France, the recipient of a blood transfusion died following the procedure. (He was poisoned with arsenic, his murder most likely orchestrated by Parisian physicians who opposed transfusion, a tale Holly Tucker tells in her book.) Blood transfusion research came to a halt—though not formally outlawed in England, as it was in France, the Fellows of the Royal Society gave it up.
Though the research stopped, the mockery did not. A decade later, in June 1676, Thomas Shadwell published the text of his popular play satirizing the Royal Society, The Virtuoso, which made fun of sheep-to-human blood transfusion. Shadwell played on transfusion’s transmutationary possibilities. In the play, Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, the virtuoso of the title, took transfusion a step further than Lower’s original experiment, fully exchanging blood between a mangy spaniel and a healthy bulldog. Far from killing either of the animals, this experiment transformed the healthy bulldog into a mangy spaniel, and vice versa. Gimcrack further boasted of experiments with cross-species transfusion, announcing that he was on the path to creating a flock of wool-bearing, bleating humans, from which he proposed to source the wool for his clothes. One of the characters, a skeptic, cracked that “if the blood of an Ass were transfused into a Virtuoso, you would not know the emittent Ass from the Recipient Philosopher.”
Gimcrack’s experiment with the mangy spaniel and the sound bulldog seems to poke fun specifically at Boyle’s questionnaire—one imagines the playwright madly taking notes as he read issues of Philosophical Transactions in the library of Welbeck Abbey, the estate of his wealthy patron, William Cavendish, Duke of Newcastle. Fellows of the Society who saw the play were deeply mortified. The experimenter Robert Hooke felt that members of the audience gawked and pointed at him openly during the performance that he attended.
Looked at one way, this episode represents a failure for the early Royal Society. The fellows’ ambitions—and imaginations—outran not only what the public was willing to support, but also reality itself. Transfusion never induced an observable transmutation in the animals—or people—subjected to it, and the negative public response put a stop to transfusion research for over a century.
Yet, if we return to the initial publication of Lower’s procedure, and Boyle’s questions, the episode can also be seen as a success. In its 350th year, Philosophical Transactions is now the world’s oldest scientific journal. Scholarly journals, more generally, have become important tools for advancing knowledge across academic fields. At the time of its invention, though, it was a new sort of beast, an attempt at scientific communication born of Royal Society secretary Henry Oldenburg’s desire to encourage scientific research and make a living while doing so. Oldenburg’s journal shared experimental results and queries publicly, introducing them to a paying readership broader than that which could be easily reached through face-to-face conversation and personal correspondence. Oldenburg, in publishing Lower’s results and Boyle’s questions, powered an international wave of transfusion research, much of which was coordinated through and reported in the Philosophical Transactions.
Whether we judge this episode a “success” or not, can it be safely laid in the past? To what extent have we moved beyond our discomfort with blood transfusion, even as the medical use of “body products,” as legal historian Kara W. Swanson terms them, has expanded wildly? In her recent book, Banking on the Body: The Market in Blood, Milk, and Sperm in Modern America, Swanson tells the story of Cook County Hospital, Chicago physician Bernard Fantus, who in 1937 first described a repository of donated blood as a “bank,” setting off an entanglement between blood, markets, and money that has since spread to other body products—milk, organs, semen, and human eggs—and continues to complicate therapeutic uses of these substances and disturb our consciences.
In the first US blood banks, physicians segregated the blood of black donors from that of white donors, following white Americans’ fears that blood carried with it a force for racial transmutation. In the present, the Food and Drug Administration bars non-celibate gay men from donating blood. Some see homophobia in this measure, though the FDA argues that it is necessary to prevent the spread of HIV. With the first successful face transplant having been conducted in France in 2005, even faces have become “body products,” raising anew questions about the relationship between the physical makeup of our bodies and our identities as individuals. The question arises again and again—or perhaps we’ve never really left it behind: when blood—or any bodily tissue—is transferred from one body to another, what does it carry with it?