Saturday, June 16, 2007

Pumping Lamb's Blood Into A Human Being...

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Black Magic, Tantra, or Plain Old Science????

What made this man think that lamb's blood could be pumped into a human being? Had he blabbered about it today, he would have been laughed at, at best, or been labeled a voodoo artist at worst. Blogs would have sneered at him. If lucky, he might have even developed a cult following. If luckier, TV channels would have grabbed at one more bizarre phenomenon to fill their bytes with, with anchorpersons interviewing him from every angle possible. The zenith of course would have been to get an invitation to appear in TV czarina Oprah Winfrey's show, no less...

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Denis Jean-Baptiste, the son of a civil engineer in Louis XIV's government, attracted controversy from the start.

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Born sometime in the 1640s, Denis called himself a doctor in medicine, but the Montpellier school of medicine from where he claimed to have earned his degree, doesn't seem to have any record of his being a student there. He also assumed the title of "Professor" to teach Mathematics and Philosophy to students; and characteristically, he didn't have any papers to prove that he had any formal grounding in these subjects. That he could still hold fort on these admittedly high-brow subjects speaks volumes of this man!

image by Jose A. Warletta, stock.Xchng

Coming back to the point, it was Denis who hit upon the idea of pumping the blood of lambs into human beings. Back then, our good doctors were still groping in the dark on what makes life tick (they still grope, in the dark I mean, but that's a different story), and a guy named William Harvey had just discovered that blood took a closed-circuit loop in the body: from the heart to the farthest cells of the body through arteries, and back again to the heart through veins.

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A clutch of scientists from England took the excitement further, and we had Christopher Wren who began giving his first intravenous injections (now what drug was he administering his patients in those days?), and Richard Lower who discovered that it was quite easy to transfuse blood from one dog to another. Not to be outdone (patriotic pride!), scientists in France set out to replicate these experiments themselves, and Denis was one scientist to take up the challenge.

After discovering the ease with which transfusion worked successfully in dogs (extract blood from one dog, and transfuse into another, and the recipient survived the experiment) - Denis was exhilarated. The thought of an entire new world (the word "hematology" hadn't been coined then) about to open up for him gave him sleepless nights.

TrendsToday Image, Polina

Thinking out of the box, he wondered - why not try this blood transfusion into human beings? And with this thought taking root in him, he got the first opportunity on 15 June 1667 - exactly this day 340 years ago - when a young man walked into his clinic. The man was in "a drowsy and feverish state", and other doctors had given up on him. Quickly concluding that his standard set of medicines wouldn't work, he got hold of a lamb, withdrew from it about 12 ounces of blood, and transfused the blood into his patient. His reasoning? "A lamb is full of gentle 'humors', and its blood will infuse in the man its natural enthusiasm and bounce." ^+^

Lo and behold! The man recovered in no time!

Elated, our Denis performed this same technique on another patient, this time a 45-year old chair bearer. Instead of a lamb, Denis now got hold of a sheep, using his own quaint (!) line of logic. Again, the man recovered!

The name and fame of Denis spread like wildfire, as expected. Extremely complicated cases would now be referred to him, and his prestige in the eyes of his peers grew.

Alas, success in a man draws antagonism and jealousy in fellow beings. So when one transfusion experiment failed and the patient died, a canard was spread that the good Doctor was the perpetrator. The case was brought to court, and though Denis successfully extricated himself of the charges, the incident shook his beliefs. He stopped transfusions from then on.

Image by elif yuceyurt, stock.Xchng

Though he was later invited to the court of England, where he demonstrated his prowess in blood transfusion, disillusionment had set in, and the man who "pumped lamb's blood into humans" faded away into oblivion.

It was almost one hundred fifty years later, when a British obstetrician, Dr. James Blundell, discarded the "gentle animal blood" theory and transfused blood from human being to human being.

What I liked about this man, Denis Jean-Baptiste, was his creativity and daring. While the buzz about animal-to-animal blood transfusion was around him, he thought of the next step of performing the first animal-to-human transfusion; never mind the soundness of his logic.

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