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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
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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

4.04  ·  Rating details ·  4,478 ratings  ·  391 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, 340 pages
Published October 20th 2006 by Harmony (first published 2006)
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4.04  · 
Rating details
 ·  4,478 ratings  ·  391 reviews

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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
Oct 14, 2011 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: Anyone
Recommended to Tyler by: Good Reviews
Shelves: history, 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
Feb 15, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, nonfiction

Even as late as the 1930s, an infection was a likely death sentence. Even a small wound on a finger or toe could be deadly, for if it became septic, doctors could do nothing except hope that the patient could fight off the infection. Antibiotics were only a wistful dream of a universal panacea. After all, how could one create a medicine that would unerringly target the bacterial foe while leaving all of the diverse cells of the body intact?

Everything changed with the invention of sulfa. Sulf
Blake Charlton
May 07, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
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
Mike (the Paladin)
I tend to like medical thrillers, then to I like nonfiction about medical breakthroughs and medical advances. This book does lay out a story but it gets sidetracked from 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 but I didn'
Barbara (The Bibliophage)
Fascinating look into the development of the first antibiotics, with scenes from WWI battlefields, Nazi experiments, Nobel ceremonies, and lots of moments over microscopes. Surprise appearance by the early FDA, explaining how they started drug testing protocols. Must enjoy science and medicine, although it's written in layman's language. I loved it!

Full review on my blog
Sep 13, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: science, history
So, for most of my life I read almost exclusively sci-fi. For the past few years, I've been branching out a lot. I'm reading and enjoying more kinds of fiction but also--for the first time in my love--quite a lot of nonfiction. I've read enough historical nonfiction now to sort of understand that the basic task of an author in this genre is to assemble a compelling story from the historical facts. There are basically two approaches.

First, they can take a well-known historical story (say, the Fal
Mar 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018, audio, nonfiction
Interesting read on a history I knew very little about, detailing the rise of antibiotics, the pharmaceutical industry, and the FDA all in the backdrop of WW2. It also blows my mind reading about how common and quickly what we consider as minor bacterial infections like strep throat would kill people. We take a lot for granted.
Amy Kannel
Absolutely loved this. The kind of book I can't stop thinking about and wanting to talk about. Close to 5 stars, but I try to reserve that rating for the very, very best so that it's more meaningful.

I'm a huge fan of this type of nonfiction (history, written almost as a novel, crossing various disciplines/topics) and this story in particular was fascinating and satisfying.
Jul 30, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: medicine, nonfiction
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
Christina Dudley
Feb 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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.

May 18, 2014 rated it liked it
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.
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
Aug 06, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  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
Jan 03, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
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
Nov 22, 2011 rated it liked it
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
Oct 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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.
Feb 04, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own
Lots of fascinating history interwoven with some pretty boring research. It felt like the author wanted to make an entire book focused on sulfa, but tried to cover way too much ground. Certain chapters told an engaging story about an individual and those worked really well. But too many chapters were obviously based on corporate notes from Bayer and were fairly boring. Unlike some other reviewers, I didn't get the sense he was rationalizing the German researchers' actions and I actually thought ...more
Rob Lund
Dec 22, 2018 rated it liked it
I liked this, though it was a but dry, as some historical works can be. But the topic interests me and I was surprised to learn just how devastating bacterial infection was in the first world war and before.
Dec 28, 2017 marked it as to-read
Back to square one in 3...2....1...
William Wright
Sep 20, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: medical
An entertaining and informative trip through the discovery and subsequent promotion of sulfa. The only criticism is the almost total absence of information about subsequent antibiotics.
Carie Steele
Mar 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
Exceptionally well written. Many books about scientific discoveries and science history attempt to tie the discovery to modern advancements. This book artfully connects that discovery of sulfa not only to advances in modern medicine, but also changes in the process of scientific discovery, political history, bureaucratic development, and ethical problems. I was impressed with how well the author tied together personal and public histories to provide a thorough and complex examination of the firs ...more
Jun 08, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: audible, own
Interesting story, a little dry, but full of good information on how antibiotics were first discovered.
Betule Sairafi
Oct 27, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: epidemiology
This is NOT one doctor's heroic search. Who let some rando off the street subtitle their book like that? This is an interesting story written like a novel with multiple Point-of-View characters. Too long for me, but I can't really handle books over 200 pages anymore.
May 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is the story of how modern antibiotics were discovered, but it's so much more than that. It vividly shows how fragile life was before the invention of modern medicine, and how governments (and warfare) affect what scientists focus their efforts on. This book also shows how interconnected the world is, at least since the 20th century. German scientists discovering molecules indirectly leads to the USA passing stronger FDA regulations ... talk about unexpected consequences!
Mar 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Feb 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Excellent. A really compelling story and well written. The thing I loved most about this book is how it prefaced so many of the trends we take for granted now about drug regulation and drug discovery. The author was effective at conveying the magnitude of the discovery - it is simply unimiganible to me that people 100 years ago lived in a world where strep throat was often fatal and women were so likely to die after childbirth from infection. My only wish was that the author would have delved a ...more
Charlotta Norby
Aug 31, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
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Author of a dozen books about the ways in which science and technology change our lives.
“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.” 6 likes
“science at its best was a flower of Western culture, unbiased, apolitical, transnational, open, and progressive. It destroyed superstition and cant. It threw at least a little light into the darkness. And it worked.” 2 likes
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