In preparation for an impending move I’ve been packing up shelves upon shelves of books. I came across one particular book I hadn’t thought of in ages; the first book I ever stayed up all night to read. I couldn’t resist and read it again, after nearly two decades it’s as riveting as ever.
In 1926 an American microbiologist cum author named Paul Henry de Kruif published his second book, a jaunty little tome called Microbe Hunters. Composed of vignettes, each providing not only an account of a microbe hunters works but an insight into their methods. The book was an unprecedented success seeing wide circulation and numerous editions in just its first year. The book remains in print to this day. In many ways this odd little history was the first of its kind; a genera scientific study, a dry technical topic covered in the fast paced style of the popular press. One might justifiably look upon de Kruif as a genuine trailblazer, paving the way for later authors like Richard Preston who would introduce a journalists integrity and an artists eye to the genera.
For all of the books popular success, Microbe Hunters suffers from more than a few rough edges. A microbiologist who breaks into writing is sure to produce a unique and passionate perspective, which is just what comes through from de Kruif. The book feels as though written with an eagerness to engage his audience that often supersedes the conventions now standard in works of non-fiction. While a modern writer might labor to ensure he does not project himself into the roles of the men and women they depict, de Kruif it seems felt no such restraint. He unhesitatingly puts words into the mouths of men as varied as Leeuwenhoek, Spallanzani, Koch, and Pasteur. He depicts Metchnikoff (however justly) as an enduringly suicidal savant, and paints David Bruce with the same brush the writers of Cracked.com are wont to use for Teddy Roosevelt. The section of the book detailing malarial research presented the work of Grassi and Ross in such a light that Ross successfully sued de Kruif to have that portion stripped from the British publication of the book! As prolific a writer as Ross however, may have simply been protecting the marketability of his own works rather than objecting to inaccuracies.
For all of the flaws in Microbe Hunters, the casual prejudices of its time, the inaccuracies and omissions, it has a certain undeniable charm as comes through in the constant descriptions of the beards and mustachios of the various men represented. Frederick Loeffler is described as “…that microbe hunter whose mustache was so militaristic the he had to keep pulling it down to see through his microscope…”. But the book still has the power to engage the interest of the reader today and has no doubt inspired countless workers to take up the microscope. De Kruif covers the subject with the enthusiasm of a child and the affection of a parent. He truly wrote an excellent book. If occasionally he wavered it is not unforgivable. Other dense accounts and windy biographies exist for those who would seek them. His book was written for a public unfamiliar with things we now teach children in school, for people with intelligence but without knowledge. In closing permit me to remind any readers who have judged Microbe Hunters harshly in the past, that tucked away in a little paragraph in the section covering Metchnikoff, de Kruif tells his reader: “…the stumbling strides of microbe hunters are not made by any perfect logic, and that is why I may write a grotesque, but not a perfect story of their deeds.”