Wednesday, January 07, 2015

The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz (2014)

My latest LibraryThing Early Reviewers book is The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz (2014). And who could resist a title like that? I'm a fan of the history of science, AND a fan of Sherlock Holmes, so this seemed like just the pick for me.

Robert Koch was a late-19th century provincial German doctor with an interest in the brand new, and at the time very controversial, field of microbiology. In his home laboratory, he developed skepticism-proof methods for studying the mysterious anthrax epidemic that would regularly overtake area livestock and proved that the illness was caused by a bacteria. This gave him a footing on the national science scene and put him head-to-head with France's Pasteur, who was working in the same field from a slightly different angle. When Pasteur developed a vaccine for anthrax based on Koch's work without giving Koch what he thought was his due, the two men started a serious feud. They went back and forth, topping each other with discoveries and methods in their respective labs, until Koch played his royal flush -- a potential cure for the most deadly and inescapable disease of the era, tuberculosis (or "consumption.")

Arthur Conan Doyle (not "Sir" yet) was a late-19th century provincial British doctor who also had an interest in the new-fangled "germ theory." When Koch let the scientific world know he was going to unveil his big discovery in Berlin, Doyle dropped everything and secured some money to go to Berlin and see for himself, covering the announcement as a journalist. Doyle couldn't actually get a ticket in to see Koch, but he did get to tour his laboratories and speak to other medical men of the day about the announcement and read their notes. Unfortunately for Koch, his desire for glory led him to muddle some of his skepticism-proof methods and his premature announcement led to disappointment when the remedy didn't end up being much of a remedy at all. Doyle saw this sooner than most and wrote a well-reasoned piece upon his return to London laying out his reasoning.

At that point, the rising career of Koch began to fall (although he still ended up being a very well-respected scientist) and the humble medical career of Doyle turned into the sky-rocketing success of writing short stories and novels featuring a certain Mr. Holmes fellow. Doyle's tragedy is desperately wanting to be known as a serious novelist. Even when he tried to kill his hero, the public demand for Holmes' return led publishers to make Doyle an offer he couldn't refuse and bring the observant detective back to life.

These are two very interesting and influential lives, and Goetz gives them a nicely researched treatment. While Goetz's writing style wasn't always my thing, the content really carries this book and sucks the reader in. I think the conceit of Koch having any real impact on Doyle's career or Doyle on Koch's is a little far-fetched -- both men were medical doctors, they were in Berlin together (but didn't meet), and Doyle published a piece doubting Koch's claims (which Koch probably never read). Both men were also affected by tuberculosis (Koch through his work and Doyle by his wife's illness), but so were the majority of people in the late 19th century. Still, bringing the two men together shines an interesting light on each career that wouldn't have been there otherwise, and emphasizing some kind of cosmic connection sounds really great on the back of the book.

This is a good one if you are interested in medical history, some context for the 1800s, or if you just really really love Sherlock Holmes. Slight downgrade for the uneven writing style, but still worth checking out.

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