Halfway through "Blood Work," author Holly Tucker describes the efforts of the 17th-century French physician Jean-Baptiste Denis to perform his first inter-species blood transfusion. The scene is chilling, like a page out of H.G. Wells' "The Island of Doctor Moreau."

"The recalcitrant dog fought back as the first incision was made," Tucker writes. "But its menacing growls soon gave way to loud, rhythmic, high-pitched yelps that quieted slowly with each pulse of blood that poured from the animal's body. Calf's blood flowed through the now familiar setup of metal tubes and into the dog. Denis ... bled the calf dry, and the animal spasmed as it took its last breath. The dog's breathing was also shallow and labored; it lived but remained weak."

Rough stuff, and we have not yet arrived at the experiments on humans. Medicine evolves not in a succession of triumphs but often along a path littered with bad ideas and sickening incidents. "Blood Work" details the fight to advance blood transfusion centuries before blood typing made the procedure -- the removal of blood from one individual to another -- safe. Not surprisingly, animal rights did not at all figure in the battle, but politics, religion and national pride prominently did.

In her debut book, Tucker, a scholar of the history of medicine and French studies at Vanderbilt University, tells her tale with verve and a willingness to follow wherever her wide-ranging research leads. Sometimes it leads her into digressions, including accounts of the ascent of King Louis XIV and the legal travails of the editor of a pioneering English scientific journal, minor players in the story. More often, Tucker uses her research to explain the cultural and medical environment in which transfusion fascinated its advocates, outraged its opponents and dragged Denis to trial as an accused murderer after one of his experimental subjects died.

Most gripping nonfiction narratives have three qualities that pull readers from page to page: dramatic events, a context that gives those events consequence and complex, well-developed characters. The events in "Blood Work" hold us in a blood-splattered thrall and make clear their significance in the history of medicine.

In selecting her characters, though, Tucker has taken on a huge challenge. Denis and his rich patron, Henri-Louis Habert de Montmor, the most important figures in the story, lived 400 years ago and left behind only traces of their lives. They handicap Tucker with what she refers to in her prologue as "archival gaps," crevices in the historical record that swallow the faces and motivations of her characters and sometimes force Tucker to focus her attention elsewhere. The book's spectacle and gory detail, though, more than compensate for characters who flit in and out of shadows.

  • Jack El-Hai frequently writes on medical history and is the author of "The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness."