Diabetes, blood poisoning, blood cells, mosquitoes, blood doping, menstruation, bloodletting, blood transfusions, and Rh disease, were just some of the topics brought up by renown Canadian author Lawrence Hill, the bestselling author of The Book of Negroes, at this year’s Massey Lectures, which debuted in Concordia’s D.B. Clarke Theatre last Tuesday.
The lecture, entitled Blood: The Stuff of Life, studies the effect blood has on people’s lives.
“Notions of blood seem to run through all of my books, so the time seemed right to pull it all together and examine some of the many ways that blood influences the ways we see ourselves, individually and collectively,” Hill said.
The first chapter of the lecture, entitled “Go Careful with That Blood of Mine: Blood Counts,” concentrated on the history of people’s knowledge of blood, the science behind it, and how it can bring people together, and also be their shortcoming. Hill interspersed originally presented facts with personal anecdotes and jokes. The lecture was followed by a short Q&A period, as well as a book signing.
Hill spoke of fascinating and curious historic events. For example, he spoke of the fact that George Washington died after doctors had performed bloodletting, meaning removing large amounts of blood to help cure diseases, in order to help him get over a cold. He spoke of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis who, in the 1800s, was thought to be insane for believing that filthy medical equipment was the reason why many women were dying when giving birth (it was later discovered that they had indeed died from blood poisoning caused by soiled instruments).
Hill also made complicated topics easy to understand by making great comparisons. In order to explain the way blood works, for example, he compared blood cell types to types of people: the white blood cell was said to be like a soldier at war, ready to fight whatever infection attacked. The red blood cell is like a bedmate, someone who is all giving, as it “kisses your cells with the gift of oxygen,” Hill explained.
Many diseases that can be shared between people were also discussed. This included diabetes, which can be hereditary, and malaria, which is spread by the blood mosquitoes bring from person to person. Hill also spoke of Rh disease, a disease where when a women’s blood type is negative while the baby’s is positive, the mother’s antibodies attack the baby’s blood. This can lead to many complications, including the death of the fetus. Thanks to Rh immune serum, which was licensed for use in 1968, and made in part from women plasma donations, this disease rarely affects people anymore.
Hill mentioned many personal anecdotes, including his family’s struggle with diabetes, his personal experience with malaria, his parents’ history, and many stories about his youth.
“I have always been interested in social histories. A social history of coffee or sugar, for example, will reveal much about history, commerce, social inequity, transatlantic trading relations, and politics. So why not a social history of blood? I find it a fascinating lens through which to contemplate who we are, and how we act. That, in a nutshell, is why I chose the topic,” Hill said
The Massey Lectures, which were named in honour of the late Governor-General of Canada, Vincent Massey, have been commissioned annually by CBC since 1961. The aim of the lectures is to provide a radio forum where major contemporary thinkers could address important issues. Some past lecturers include Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967), Noam Chomsky (1988) and Michael Ignatieff (2000).
The next chapter of the lecture will take place in Halifax on Oct. 17, then move to Vancouver, Edmonton, and finally conclude in Toronto on Nov. 1. The book Blood: the Stuff of Life, published by House of Anansi Press, is now available in bookstores. The 2013 Massey Lectures will be broadcast on CBC Radio One IDEAS from Nov. 11 to 15. The show plays weekdays at 9 p.m..
For more information visit cbc.ca/masseys