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The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug

4.03 of 5 stars 4.03  ·  rating details  ·  2,054 ratings  ·  237 reviews
The Nazis discovered it. The Allies won the war with it. It conquered diseases, changed laws, and single-handedly launched the era of antibiotics. This incredible discovery was sulfa, the first antibiotic. In The Demon Under the Microscope, Thomas Hager chronicles the dramatic history of the drug that shaped modern medicine.

Sulfa saved millions of lives—among them those of
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published September 19th 2006 by Harmony (first published 2006)
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Apr 14, 2012 Tyler rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anyone
Recommended to Tyler by: Good Reviews
Shelves: non-fiction
The story of sulfa drugs makes for good reading, but the author’s fascination with the scientist behind their discovery turns this book into an un-asked-for defense of the German people’s conduct during the Nazi era. The author’s story is uneven, so I’ll go from the bad to the good.

Hager’s book could have been thirty or forty pages shorter. He takes too long describing the experiments leading to the isolation of a sulfa drug by Dr. Gerhard Domagk, who one day would win a Nobel prize for it. He
It is interesting that I read this book concurrently with Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, wherein her daughter nearly succumbs to sepsis created by the flu. I remember reading through those chapters and thinking, “my god this still happens!” I know factually that people still die from sepsis from bacteria and viruses; my childhood hero, Jim Henson passed in that same manner with pneumonia. I even know, logically, that this CAN happen to people in their prime- recently a local police ...more
Let me start by saying the title of this book is incredibly misleading. This is not one doctor's discovery of sulfa drugs, the first antibiotic, it is the story of the discovery of sulfa drugs and their effectiveness which took years and many people in labs throughout several countries. The focus for much of the book is on Gerhard Domagk, but there were dozens instrumental to its discovery, development, and marketing; not to mention those who paved the way for the research.

The book covers the de
Christina Dudley
A great read about the fascinating development of the world's first antibiotic, the sulfa drug Prontosil. If you ever wished to time travel and often picture yourself at Downton Abbey, let this cure you of such romanticism. Life before antibiotics was precarious! If President Calvin Coolidge's son could DIE of a blister on his toe that he got playing tennis, nobody was safe.

Developed by the German company Bayer, Prontosil's story intersects and overlaps with Nazi Germany and WWII.

Aug 07, 2014 Lori rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: medical history buffs
This is actually a goodread, even though it is basically a chronicle of an evolution of a drug, sulfa, its actually a whole lot more.
It goes through the history of its development, yes Nazis had a hand in it, but it saved millions of people including a one point Winston Churchill. It really took off in America when it saved the President’s son, FDR Jr.
Publicity spread about this wonder drug and to meet demands a company out of Tennessee, Massengill Co, made a liquid form in 1937. It was a conco
I got sick while in the middle of this book, and it's a testament to the content that I kept reading despite the descriptions of people dying in various agonizing ways while my own health was questionable. It's not that graphic, but for anyone born after a certain time, after antibiotics became both commonplace and safe, it's sobering to realize how many people used to die due to secondary infections.

Gerhard Domagk, a German soldier-turned-medical-assistant in the First World War, was frustrated
Tells the story of the life-altering research and development of sulfa drugs. The book is well paced for the most part, and the backdrop of early Nazi Germany adds additional interest. The book begins with the story of Gerhard Domagk, a German who survived injuries sustained in World War I to become the first doctor and researcher to achieve some success in developing an antibiotic. Coverage of the initial research dragged a little (possibly because none of the German or French researchers would ...more
I read this after reading The Alchemy of Air, also by Thomas Hager. Though both TAoA and this book are thoroughly researched and shed light on very important, and often undervalued, scientific issues, TDUtM distinctly feels stitched together, so much so as to seem forced at times. The book's description is deliberately compelling, and in many ways, the theme of the story is very much deservedly so. However, Hager seems to lose steam at certain parts of the book, filling pages with anecdotes that ...more
Blake Charlton
One of the best examples of clear, compelling scientific writing I've ever come across. Though I've studied organic chemistry and medical science for years, I never knew the amazing impact of sulfa--ranging from transformation of the medical profession, to the great influence it had on the way WWII was fought, to the creation of the FDA. Anyone interested in good science or historical writing really should pick this one up. For those interested in medicine, pharmacology, and infectious disease, ...more
Interesting review of the history of man's knowledge (and lack thereof) of bacterial infections leading up to the discovery of the sulfa drugs in Germany in the '30s and their enormous importance in WWII. I was not aware of the essentially complete lack of regulation of drug sales in the U.S. prior to the enactment of some regulation by the FDA. You could sell anything you liked and make any claim you liked about why it was good for you!! Hard to believe in this century but true.
A fantastic book. Hager provides a fascinating history of how sulfa drugs were invented, taking interesting detours along the way. One particular detour sheds light on how the FDA came to be resultant a poisonous sulfa drug elixer made by Massingil. It turns out that the owner of the company was a real douche as well!

The book reads like a suspense novel, jumping from Germany to France to England and back as the sulfa drug is discovered. While the Germans bring the first sulfa drug over the fini
I love drug discovery stories and this one goes beyond the initial discovery to tell you about what was going on in the world of medicine and how the discovery changed things today. Excellent.
Mike (the Paladin)
I tend to like medical thrillers. I then to like nonfiction about medical breakthroughs and medical advances. This book does lay out a story but it actually gets sidetracked fr4om its given premise.

We are told we'll be looking at the development of Sulfa and it's effect on medicine and bacterial disease. We do but in a very round about way. The book turns into a series of short biographies. These don't actually hold up well (at least for me) as they to tended to wander a bit.

Just me of course b
I found this book absolutely fascinating mainly because my career of my career in hospital laboratory science. Before the advent of sulfa drugs more soldiers died from infections and gas gangrene than from wounds, many women died from infections after childbirth, people died from strep throat and meningitis because there were no known cures.

The first bacteria were seen in 1675 using a crude microscope and the race was on to discover what these minute organisms were and later how to treat the di
Fascinating history, not just of the sulfa drugs, but of the remaking of modern medicine for better (turning doctors from poorly paid people that could only predict and console into the practical scientists they are today) and for worse (human trial research methods being pioneered in nazi death camps, the rise of giant pharmaceutical companies that now have a stranglehold on the industry).

Not only this, but there are some amazing biographical stories as well that will stick with you. For me, th
I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that antibiotics changed the human condition. I had a vague idea about a penicillin eureka moment with moldy bread, but had never heard any of the story of the actual first commercially available antibiotics: sulfa drugs.

In inter-war Germany, Bayer gave nearly unlimited budget and time to a team that painstakingly tested hundreds of synthesized chemicals--each patiently constructed a molecule different than the last--against a virulent form of strep dev
Charlotta Norby
A totally fascinating book. Very readable by the lay reader. About how chemists and physicians discovered the first anti-bacterial, anti-biotic drugs, and forever changed the course of medicine, and all kinds of other things.
It's a fascinating view of how quickly these developments have taken place - less than 100 years ago, most doctors didn't attend medical school, there was no such thing as control by prescription of the distribution of drugs to patients. There were no requirements that in o
Marina Sweeney
I listened to this as an audiobook, and I thought it translated really well to that media. What I especially loved about this book was how great of a public health story it was. Caveat: I love public health and medical history, so my feelings about this book might not be shared by people less interested in this genre. In other words, I am a nerd, and I thought this book was awesome. [Also, as someone who is about to enter the field of clinical research, I was especially interested to learn that ...more
Jimmy Tarlau
This was a very entertaining popular history about the discovery of the sulpher drugs in the middle of the 20th century. I didn't even know that there were sulpher drugs before I read the book. They were used to cure a bunch of diseases and had wide spread use during the second world war though were eventually eclipsed by the anti-biotics. Popular history books are good because they cover the subject but also focus on indivdual personalities and background on a bunch of related topics.
Excellent book on the battle to conquer strept. We don't think a whole lot about strept now. When our kids get sick with this bug/microbe it usually causes a sore throat. This is what doctors test for. But in my grandmother's time, streptococcus of any kind could kill you. Streptococcus infections caused sepsis, wound infections, and if it traveled from the throat to the heart, it could cause rheumatic fever. I know about this because my grandmother ended up with it.

The Germans were the first to
The "Demon Under the Microscope" immediately seemed more entertaining and informative to me than a similarly themed title I'd just read - "The Emperor of Maladies." And although it was both those things, I realized going through the book the success or failure isn't as much in either of the authors as it is in the scope of the work and the audience. With respect to scope and subject, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised I was pretty much riveted by the success story of sulfa drugs between World Wa ...more
I truly enjoyed this book, especially the first half.

Where the book veered off-course is with the excessive focus on the Nazi regime. Before Hitler came into power, sulfa drugs were widespread. It is as though once Hitler (HITLER!) notices sulfa drugs, they become tainted -- no matter that the Allies were using them, as well.

This is not to say that the Ravensbruck experiments were not important for discussion, but the second half becomes an exercise in outrage over the Nazi regime, rather than
I have not come across good books on the development of medicinal science in the first half of the 20th century. This book beautifully fills the void for people interested in the amazing leaps (and dives) taken by humanity in that immensely important period.

There are countless number of books on the historic discoveries in relativity and quantum physics between 1905-1945. The personal stories of the famous scientists as well as the role played by them/their right and wrong innovations plus disco
It's sometimes surprising, when you look back into history, how often people died from disease. Even during wars, more were usually killed by illness and infection than in battle. I've looked into my own family history and it's not uncommon to find ancestors who died young by today's standards, or whose families could have been much larger if not for the children who died soon after birth (and mothers as well) or while still young. Today, we take it for granted that medicines and doctors can cur ...more
This is an excellent book, effectively combining history and science in a discussion of the discovery and impact of sulfa antibiotics. The author does an excellent job describing the motivations and actions of scientists. The historical period and events make amazing backdrops. The discoverer of Sulfa antibacterial drugs was Gerhard Domagk, inspired to discover a cure for gas gangrene by service as a medic in the Germand Army in WWI. He becomes a physician and a scientist, working for IG Farben, ...more
I moderately like factual historic stories of discovery. I mostly like stories of scientific discovery. I appreciate narratives of medical questioning and dogged explorations of boundaries. I can relate to stories of political necessity and the balance of what should be, could be, and is, in any given realistic place and time.
But, could I like a book with such a gumbo of ingredients? When does a melange of color become, simply, gray?
Thomas Hager gives forth, in measured terms and with appropr
This is one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read. It tells the story of the discovery of Sulfa, which ultimately lead to changing the way manufactured chemicals were used in the practice of Medicine. This, in turn, had an impact on how chemicals are tested and approved for use by humans. This books brings to mind books like “Devil in the White City“ and “Thunderstruck“ by Erick Larson. I loved both those books and almost every book along that line, that I call ‘fictionalized' non-ficti ...more
We have come a long way in our understanding of human anatomy, pathophysiology, and biochemistry since the time of Domagk's Prontosil. There are now nearly 5,000 medications available in the US and nearly 18,000 medication products available for use today. We have a federal agency (FDA) that monitors, approves, and regulates drug manufacturers and we have a generation of people who grew up taking antibiotics for a bacterial infection. All of this can be attributed to the discovery of sulfa drugs ...more
Sue Pit
I found this to be a very interesting subject matter. The "world's first miracle drug" turns out to be sulfa. I should have known this but I was expecting it to be antibiotics (such as penicillin) when I first bought this book at Atticus. Amazing that sulfa was discovered at all. Quite random, but that is the history of many an amazing discovery! The author sets the stage nicely by showing the great need to fight infection and the related struggles in relative recent history. Rather scary to thi ...more
I don't read non-fiction often but ocassionally something will catch my attention. This book did just that: the story of the world's first antibiotic and the transition from a culture where routine infections killed to the current era of the uber drugs.

Sulfa is a name most people are unfamiliar with and its story has been largely forgotten and untold. Before Penicillin, before Amoxicillin or the myriad other antibiotics sold today, there was Sulfa. Unregulated, over-used and derived and tested
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Author of six books of nonfiction about the ways in which science and technology change people's lives.
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“Where there were once several competing approaches to medicine, there is now only one that matters to most hospitals, insurers, and the vast majority of the public. One that has been shaped to a great degree by the successful development of potent cures that followed the discovery of sulfa drugs. Aspiring caregivers today are chosen as much (or more) for their scientific abilities, their talent for mastering these manifold technological and pharmaceutical advances as for their interpersonal skills. A century ago most physicians were careful, conservative observers who provided comfort to patients and their families. Today they act: They prescribe, they treat, they cure. They routinely perform what were once considered miracles. The result, in the view of some, has been a shift in the profession from caregiver to technician. The powerful new drugs changed how care was given as well as who gave it.” 1 likes
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