By Holly Tucker (W&M Editor)
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While researching this book, I traveled often to specialized library collections abroad and walked the streets of Paris and London to retrace the steps of my seventeenth-century doctors, patients, and killers. Most often, my strolls were an exercise of trying to imagine the past–rather than actually walking in it. Life and time move on. Physical spaces get repurposed, demolished, rebuilt. And to my great disappointment, Louis XIV will never greet me at the gates of Versailles. (More on that crazy fantasy here.)
This was not the case at the Hôtel Montmor, the private residence where the main “character” of my nonfiction book did his horrific animal-to-human blood transfusion experiments.
I remember waiting for what seemed like hours one beautiful May day for someone to exit the soaring wood doors of the impressive compound on the Rue du Temple just so I could steal a peek at what lay behind. Once I finally gained access, I stood in the cour d’honneur, mouth agape and eyes watering. I was joyous…and overwhelmed.
Everything was precisely as I had imagined it after having worked so long with period maps, architectural plans, and descriptions in manuscript letters. The concierge of the building, Jean-Marie Carpentier, approached me cautiously, likely wondering if I were not a bit like the mentally-ill man that Baptiste used as one of his first transfusion patients.
As I explained in French (thanks to my French Grandmother, from whom I learned the language), the words came tumbling out in near gasps. Up there, that’s where Montmor’s private scientific Academy met. This is the staircase Denis walked up on the night of his history-making experiment. Under these dormers there is where Mauroy stayed after the transfusion.
After Monsieur Carpentier confirmed to my delight that the staircase, the balustrade, the tiles, all of it was in its original state, we spent the rest of the afternoon together exploring the building and what is left of the gardens–teaching each other about its rich history. As we strolled among the ghosts, I was reminded once again of how insanely grateful I am to get to the type of research I do as a researcher, teacher, and writer.
Holly Tucker is Professor of Medicine, Health & Society and Professor of French Studies at Vanderbilt University. Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist in Science & Technology. It was a Times Literary Supplement and Seattle Times Book of the Year. Her next book, on the early history of forensics, is under contract with W.W. Norton.