Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Microbe Hunters

Posted by nliakos on March 12, 2016

by Paul de Kruif (Blue Ribbon Books; © 1926 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc.)

Did you look at the pub date? That’s right–1926. During the Great Depression; between the World Wars. There was no airline industry. There was no Internet. There was no Big Pharma. I don’t know if the book belonged to my mother (born in 1914) or my father (born in 1905–so more likely, I guess). I remember reading some of it, but not how old I was when I did. . . . perhaps 13 or 14? I remember reading about Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who invented the microscope in the 18th century and was the very first human to see the microbial world, and Louis Pasteur, and Robert Koch. Lightly drawn checks on the Contents page indicate that I may also have read about Lazzaro Spallanzani, who proved that microbes were living things that begot more microbes; Émile Roux and Emil Behring, who made the serum that cured diphtheria; Theobald Smith, who was the first to show that microbial disease could be transmitted by another living thing, a tick; Ronald Ross and Battista Grassi, who discovered how malaria was carried by the mosquito Anopheles claviger; Walter Reed, who sought to prevent or cure yellow fever; and Paul Ehrlich, who invented a way to stain bacteria to make them easier to see. For no reason that I can remember, I apparently skipped the chapters about Élie Metchnikoff, who invented calomel ointment, which cured syphilis; and David Bruce, who solved the mysteries of nagana (or trypanosomiasis), a disease that killed Europeans’ horses and cattle) and sleeping sickness.

This time around, I read everything, and I saw things through a very different lens than I did as an adolescent. Then, I suppose I saw these men as heroes who saved mankind from terrible diseases. They were, and they did, but they also slaughtered untold numbers of innocent animals to achieve their goals (without benefit of any laws requiring humane care of the animals), used unsuspecting human beings in some of their research, made possible the human population explosion that plagues us now, and enabled a few European nations to divide Africa up into colonies, robbing native Africans of their birthright and leading to the destruction of African wildlife.

Of course, I would not want to die of yellow fever, rabies, malaria, tuberculosis, diphtheria, syphilis, smallpox, or any of the other diseases brought under control by medical science (although as we now know, the microbes are quite capable of evolving along with our so-called cures and vaccines, staying a step ahead of us–I am writing this soon after the terrible Ebola outbreak in West Africa and at the beginning of the frightening Zika epidemic that is spreading quickly through Latin America.). But after reading Jared Diamond, I can appreciate how the European powers’ conquest of Africa was delayed by trypanosomiasis and malaria; finding cures for these diseases and others made that conquest possible. As de Kruif wrote, “Bruce made the first step towards the opening up of Africa.” He saw that as a good thing, but in retrospect, I do not (for either the people or the animals that live there). In order to “open up” the continent, he advocated the extermination of native African wildlife. De Kruif was unsympathetic; of sleeping sickness, he wrote, “It was turning the most generous soil on earth back into an unproductive preserve for giraffes and hyenas.”

Furthermore, de Kruif was writing at a time when Africans could be called “darkies” and their children “pickaninnies,” and he sneered at Jews, the Japanese and the Portuguese, among others. His racist, Eurocentric  attitude is shocking to a modern reader. On the other hand, he was about to actually interview some of his subjects before they died, which seems amazing today. His writing style is peculiar to us–a mix of conversational/slangy and very formal styles. Ninety years can change a lot. However, despite these drawbacks, the book is still available today through Google Books, and from Barnes and Noble and Amazon, which will even deliver it wirelessly to your Kindle. Paul de Kruif would be astonished.

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