The Fire in the Glass: The Truth Behind the Fiction

There’s much in The Fire in the Glass I’ve shamelessly made up. The rest was stolen from history, including many of the more horrifying pieces of the plot. When it comes to doing terrible things, humanity proves as inventive in practice as we fiction writers are in the safety of our pages.

Blood transfusion and typing

Confession: I fudged the timeline. Dr. Joseph Hartwell isn’t actually the first to discover the relationship between blood types and transfusion compatibility. Blood groups were discovered by Karl Landsteiner in 1901. Six years later, Reuben Ottenberg performs the first successful blood transfusion made by cross-matching the blood groups of the donor and recipient.

The importance of blood transfusion isn’t exaggerated by Dr. Gardner in The Fire in the Glass. It saves an estimated 4.5 million lives every year in the U.S. alone. (So if you’re hale and eligible, consider donating.)

Dr. Hartwell wouldn’t have known what to call Jeremy Waddington, whom he finds can miraculously accept blood from any donor. Today we’d recognize him as AB Positive.

Treating syphilis with malaria

Austrian physician Julius Wagner-Jauregg won a Nobel prize in 1928 for his work treating syphilis with by deliberately giving patients malaria. He was also a Nazi who supported Hitler’s notions of racial purity and advocated for the forced sterilization of the mentally ill.

At the time, syphilis was frequently a terminal disease. Wagner-Jauregg’s discovery that a high fever could sometimes cure it was revolutionary. Malaria, though dangerous, was more reliably treatable than syphilis, which made the risk seem acceptable. He infected his syphilitic patients with the disease by transfusing it from a carrier of the malaria parasite.

Eugenics in Britain

Most of us understandably associate eugenics with Nazi Germany, but Hitler didn’t invent this twisted “science”. It was well established in both Great Britain and the United States for decades before Hitler rose to power. The term “eugenics” was actually coined by an Englishman: Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin who tried to apply Darwin’s evolutionary theory to humanity, proposing that we could breed our way to a “high and generous civilization”.

Galton wasn’t seen as an extremist. He was a prominent and respected member of British society, and was even knighted before he died.

Dr. Hartwell’s Society for the Betterment of the British Race is roughly based on the Eugenics Education Society, founded in England in 1907. The group actively campaigned for restrictions on marriage like the ones Hartwell is pushing for in The Fire in the Glass.

Things went even further here in the United States. Over two dozen states passed laws requiring that state mental patients, prisoners or others deemed “imbeciles” be sterilized. As recently as the 1970s, thousands of Black, Native, and Latina women reported being coerced into sterilization or having the procedure done to them without their knowledge.

Non-consensual human experimentation

Dr. Hartwell’s penchant for experimenting on patients without their consent also has its historical parallels. The flu vaccine was developed by deliberately infecting patients in asylums with the virus. The spinal tap was tested on children, who were obviously incapable of consenting, reportedly without the knowledge of their parents. Prisoners were often treated as medical guinea pigs. I found one published study from the late 19th century in Britain that proudly reported the results of experiments in feeding orphans small quantities of poison.

Science saves lives, but for much of our history, the suffering of the poor and powerless has been deemed an acceptable cost for advancement. That’s not something that ended in Hartwell’s time – it’s something we still have to be vigilant against today.