Thomas Hager writes a compelling medical and scientific history in The Demon Under the Microscope. Subtitled From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug, its scope is incredibly wide.
This book is the perfect match for a book I read not long ago. The Butchering Art discusses antiseptic use in operating rooms and hospitals of the late nineteenth century. The Demon Under the Microscope moves forward to the early to middle twentieth century. Hager starts with the horrific battlefield casualties of World War I, where infections like gas gangrene caused countless deaths.
Then he details the protocols of industrial chemistry labs in both France and Germany. If you’re not a science reader, you might begin snoozing here. But for me, it was especially fascinating. Our grandson is a chemistry major at university and hopes to work in drug development research after completing his schooling. So I couldn’t help but connect the two!
Discovering the antibiotic properties of sulfa legitimately changed the world. But getting to the point of effectiveness took some doing. Hager describes the pendulum swings from suspicion to over use to judicious prescribing. He works in the role of the early FDA in rooting out false advertising claims and lack of proper testing. As a result, the story ranges from Europe to the USA and back again.
There are some real moments of shock and horror as Hager tells about Nazi drug experiments at Ravensbrook. But he spends much more time discussing the heroic and doggedly persistent work of a small group of scientists. They worked under intense political pressure from the Nazis, sacrificing many things.
Ultimately, the world benefitted from the expertise and inspiration each scientist contributed. Even as various labs compete, it’s the healthcare consumer who wins.
I was utterly fascinated. Hager balances scientific information and the human side of the story. And narrator Stephen Hope does a bang-up job keeping the audiobook clear and suitably fascinating. The successes and failures along the way are sometimes tragic and other times exhilarating. Think about all the people who get an infection, like pneumonia. It’s the work of these men that saves them from the specter of death. You just never know where intense focus will get you. I wholeheartedly recommend this book if you enjoy historical science, medicine, and biography.