The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug
Thomas Hager, . . Harmony, $24.95 (340pp) ISBN 978-1-4000-8213-1
Modern bacteriology was born on the battlefields of WWI, where bacteria-rich trenches added to the toll of millions of soldiers killed. Not coincidentally, the search for anything that would significantly diminish the deadly power of disease largely occurred between the world wars, mostly in Germany. Gerhard Domagk and his colleagues at Bayer (a subsidiary of I.G. Farben) worked feverishly to identify which microscopic squiggles might render humankind forever safe from malaria and tuberculosis. The answer, discovered in 1932, turned out to be sulfa drugs, the precursors to modern antibiotics. Hager, a biographer of Linus Pauling, does a remarkable job of transforming material fit for a biology graduate seminar into highly entertaining reading. He knows that lay readers need plenty of personality and local color, and his story is rich with both. This yarn prefigures the modern rush for corporate pharma patents; it is testament to Hager's skill that the inherently unsexy process of finding the chemicals that might help conquer strep is as exciting as an account of the hunt for a Russian submarine.
Reviewed on: 07/17/2006