Microbe Hunters!

The other day, I found myself thinking of a book I read and loved as a kid--Microbe Hunters by Paul de Kruif.

1943 edition, which
looks just like my old battered copy!

Although it’s always dangerous to go back to beloved books of childhood, I’ve found myself brooding on Paul de Kruif’s book and my childhood love of it.

Like a lot of my reading material, I dug it out of our cluttered cellar of our rowhouse in Baltimore, hidden among boxes of Christmas ornaments and old winter coats. The cover wasn’t exactly enticing, but once I started reading, I was hooked.

Written in swashbuckling prose, Microbe Hunters details the lives of several dedicated men of science as they muscularly tracked down the dangerous pathogens that threaten humanity.  There was Pasteur versus rabies while Koch squared off against tuberculosis and Ehrlich took on syphilis--well, you get the picture. It was all pretty heady stuffy. So heady that for a time, I imagined growing up and joining the ranks of the microbe hunters. In my fevered daydreams, I saved countless lives and was on the verge of winning the Nobel prize, until I brought back to earth when my parents and other adults reminded that I was no good at science and had almost failed math.

In other words, I was a girl.

I knew they were right, though it hurt to have another dream dashed. My other ambition was to play for the Baltimore Orioles. Even though I had no talent for the game and was the wrong sex, I loved baseball (still do) and my Orioles (ditto).

Curious about my beloved childhood book, I found a copy online and digitally flipped through its pages. The book was and wasn’t as I remembered. I saw why I’d been enamoured of these cock-sure men who stode the world like giants and spoke almost exclusively in exclamatory sentences.“‘How true are the words of Goethe!’ cried Behring. ‘Blood is an entirely wonderful sap!’”. And here’s Loeffler--a colleague of Koch’s--waxing philosophic about diphtheria:  “The toxin must be found, in the organs of a dead child, in the carcass of a guinea-pig dead of the disease—yes—and in the broth where the bacillus grows so well!”

A lot of the dialogue was ridiculous, with much of it obviously cut whole from the cloth. I seriously doubt that after the Leeuwenhoek’s death, the learned men of England and Paris observed: “‘Leeuwenhoek is dead, it is too bad, it is a loss that cannot be made good. Who now will carry on the study of the little animals?’”

The author also relied heavily on cultural stereotypes. For example, the Dutchman Leeuwenhoek comes off as a man-child: “He was like a child anxious and proud to show a large red apple to his playmates but loth to let them touch it for fear they might take a bite out of it.” But far worse is the casual racism de Kruif employed when he wrote of the human subjects, something I hadn’t noticed as a child.