Even as late as the 1930s, an infection was a likely death sentence. Even a small wound on a finger or toe could be deadly, for if it became septic, doctors could do nothing except hope that the patient could fight off the infection. Antibiotics were only a wistful dream of a universal panacea. After all, how could one create a medicine that would unerringly target the bacterial foe while leaving all of the diverse cells of the body intact?
Everything changed with the invention of sulfa. Sulfanilamide, or sulfa, which is still used today in familiar drugs such as Bactrim, was the first widely-known antibiotic, its effectiveness discovered by the German pathologist Gerhard Domagk. The story of sulfa--its invention, the race to production, the ironic twist in its usage, the growing tensions between Germany and the rest of the world--is all utterly fascinating and probably obscure to most of us. Because of that, I won’t describe the best parts of the story--it’s far better to reach the delicious ironies unaware.
Hager is a fantastic storyteller. He weaves together the story of sulfa from a series of related episodes, digressing into everything from Domagk’s war experiences to the disastrous patent medicine incident in the United States to the French techniques of corporate espionage to the sulfa experiments on the women of Ravensbruck, yet somehow creating a harmonious whole. My only real complaint is that these digressions tend to make the book jump around a lot in time so that I had difficulty reconstructing the chronology.
Hager packs a tremendous amount of history into the story, and the impact of these practically forgotten figures is utterly startling. Many of these stories, such as the lab assistant who accidentally inoculated himself with “super strep” and was forced to experiment with his own treatments-- are so fantastic and so perfectly fitting that it is hard to believe they are fact rather than fiction. The stories of the characters' war experiences are so dramatic that I had to double-check them before I could believe the text. Oddly, one extraneous detail that really stuck with me was an offhanded comment about Hitler's vehement dislike of animal testing. I know Hitler was a monster and that much of what he did was even more illogical, but that bizarre inconsistency still somehow continues to trouble me. One of my favourites from the beginning of the book is the story of childbed fever, a.k.a. “The Doctor’s Plague.” First seen in the 1600s, it took centuries of dead women before people began to notice an odd pattern. While doctors’ patients tended to die in droves, those treated by midwives, even in the same hospitals, had a good chance of never catching the disease. It took even longer for someone to discover the moral of the story: if you’ve just finished an autopsy of one victim of childbed fever, it might be nice to wash your hands before sticking them up another.
If you have even a mild interest in medical history, then I’d definitely recommend taking a look at The Demon in the Microscope. There’s nothing quite as magical as a gifted storyteller with a fascinating story to tell.