Paris, winter of 1667. Jean-Baptiste Denis makes an incision in a patient’s arm and allows a small amount of calf’s blood to flow into his body. Denis had hoped the “purity” of the animal’s blood would transform his patient, a mentally ill Frenchman who often beat his wife, into a mild-mannered gentleman. Instead, the patient vomited and went into shock.

So begins Red Gold: The Epic Story of Blood, starting June 23 on PBS. Part bio-thriller, part historical commentary, this four-part miniseries cuts across such topics as the rituals of bloodletting, scientific advances in blood storage and transfusion, social barriers that segregated blood by race, and the role of blood in diseases like AIDS and hepatitis.

The series is based on a 1998 book by veteran science writer Douglas Starr, who struck upon the idea while researching a story about artificial blood. “The information I was finding reminded me of something,” remembers Starr. “Then it hit me: oil. Blood is a global commodity.”

Red Gold is packed with historical interviews and shocking images, such as Russian doctors using cadavers for transfusions. The final segment, which has the feel of a Red Cross commercial, is a letdown. But overall, PBS has transformed a vague medical topic into a thought-provoking, disturbing, and sometimes amusing story. There’s enough detail to surprise a fourth-year medical student, but it’s clear enough to enthrall a novice like me.