Acclaimed author Lawrence Hill will deliver CBC's annual Massey Lectures this year, and he opens the cross-Canada series in Montreal, at Concordia University on Tuesday evening.
Tonight's lecture is called "Go Careful with That Blood of Mine: Blood Counts."
CBC Montreal's Mike Finnerty spoke with Hill as he was putting the finishing touches on his lecture series — Blood: The Stuff of Life.
To buy tickets for tonight's lecture, click here.
Mike Finnerty: Why did you choose the topic of blood?
Lawrence Hill: I’ve been kind of interested in the stuff since I was a young boy … and then I began to think about it in terms of how it divides us and unites us, and how it speaks to the differences between men and women. Blood has always been something that’s fascinated me.
MF: Tell us about the history of bloodletting - what ever possessed physicians to start bleeding their patients?
LH: Early philosophers believed the body had four humours and that one of them was blood. One of the ways to maintain health and to have a better balance between those humours was to let blood out when you were ill.
MF: Obviously when taken to extremes bloodletting can be catastrophic, but on the other hand, it is one of the great examples of humanity, the fact that you can donate some of your blood to someone else...
LH: Raymonde Marius lives in St. Boniface, a suburb of Winnipeg. She’s an older woman and she had many children, but she lost a couple because she had Rh disease.
She didn’t want to see other women suffer, so she donated her plasma well over a thousand times for forty years. When you donate plasma, it’s not like walking into a medical lab, rolling up your sleeve and you leave.
When you donate plasma, you’re in that chair for an hour and a half, they take your blood out, they wash it around, they extract the plasma and then they re-inject the red blood cells and the other parts of your blood.
MF: There’s a long tradition of this kind of giving of yourself in a fundamental way.
LH: Transfusions are absolutely fascinating. I did spend several pages on it in the book and I will mention it in the lectures in Montreal because it says so much about our commitment to each other.
First of all, doctors started doing crazy things like trying to transfuse the blood from animals like calves into human beings, thinking that if a human being was psychotic or mentally deranged, perhaps the calming influence of a calm calf’s blood would bring about psychiatric improvement in the ill patient.
Of course, what it does is accelerate the death of the poor guy who’s being transfused with calf’s blood.
And we moved on finally to transfuse blood from human to human...when we first started transfusing, people were hooked up, one to the other. There was no way to store blood. You’ve got to move it directly from person A to person B.
That was very painful, that hurt.
MF: One of the things I found profoundly disturbing, is the way blood is viewed differently whether you’re a man or a woman.
LH: In a nutshell, historically and today still, I think many men view blood as a trophy of war or sport. It’s an emblem of courage and heroism if you’ve spilled your blood to help your team or your country...and we’re total wimps about it too, unless we’re trying to be manly about it.
But women have to deal with the loss of blood every month … One of the most interesting things for me is how incredibly clued out men have been for thousands of years … if we have these outdated ideas that date back to Aristotle and before, that [menstruation] is indeed a curse, that women’s blood somehow makes them impure, then these ideas are translated into our religions, and into our literature and into our rules … and into every form of sexism imaginable.
MF: What do you hope people will take away from your lecture?
LH: Well I guess I hope they’ll take away a kind of renewed admiration and renewed respect for all the ways that blood has united us and divided us, and perhaps take away a more thoughtful criticism of some of the attitudes we have about blood that are limiting us and dividing us as humans.