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

The Demon Under the Microscope by Thomas Hager
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May 20, 12

bookshelves: book-group, historical, science-for-the-science-phobic
Read in May, 2012

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 listen when I repeatedly hissed, “It’s not the azo dyes!”). It picked up when Daniel Bovet, a Swiss scientist employed by the Pasteur Institute in France, found he had four extra mice to experiment with. By the time Dr. Long of Johns-Hopkins received what he initially believed to be a prank call from a colleague impersonating Eleanor Roosevelt, both the story and the use of sulfa were moving like a wildfire.

I was struck by the fact that only 75 years ago there was no awareness of the importance of hygiene in medical procedures. It was also fascinating to read about problems resulting from nonexistent standards for drug oversight, and how an errant sulfa compound finally changed this.

The book goes on to cover further uses and abuses of sulfa variants, politics, and peer competition, particularly as World War II came to an end, and the satisfaction when Domagk was finally allowed to accept his Nobel prize 8 years after it was awarded. By that time penicillin was proving to be more useful than sulfa, but as the epilogue points out (somewhat repetitively), the evolution of the first antibiotic had a profound impact on medical protocol and the health of the world population.
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