Epistemic Spot Check: The Demon Under the Microscope (Thomas Hager)

Description

How much would it suck to be the guy who invented sulfa drugs? You dedicate your life to preventing a repeat of the horrors you saw in the war, succeed in that and so much more, and then 10 years later some idiot leaves a petri dish open and completely replaces you as the father of man’s triumph against bacteria.  Actually he left the lid off before you found your thing, but ignored the result until you hit it big because everyone knew you couldn’t fight disease with chemicals, until you proved you could.  It’s the ultimate silver medal.  The Demon Under the Microscope is the tale of that guy.

It’s by the same author (Thomas Hagen) as The Alchemy of Air.  It’s also set in the same corporation, and about field that was transforming from science to industry.  The writing style is similar.  I originally didn’t intend to fact check this book very hard because I already knew what to expect from the author (a little too invested in the subject but basically accurate), but the habit is too ingrained at this point and I couldn’t keep reading until I’d checked out the first few chapters.

 

Evaluation

Claim: “Domagk [the researcher] had the ability to see. He watched everything, noted slight variations, quietly filed it all away.”  (p. 18).

The wounds themselves he accepted as the results of war. But the infections that followed—surely science could do something to stop those. He focused on the bacteria, his personal demons, “these terrible enemies of man that murder him maliciously and treacherously without giving him a chance.” “I swore before God and myself,” he later wrote, “to counter this destructive madness.”  (p. 20).

Who knows but it’s pretty.  Someone in the same position as thousands of others (in this case a WW1 medic), caring more , and going to fix it (via sulfa drugs) is my moral aesthetic.  Of course there could be another surgeon in the same place with just as much care and potential who got blow up or gassed.  The Alchemy of Air prioritized poetry over provability, so I don’t entirely trust this, but I like it.

Claim: Cholera was a big problem for German soldiers.

This would be a weird thing to make up, but I’m a little confused.  There had been a cholera vaccine for over 20 years by that point.

Claim: Gas gangrene is bad.

True.

Claim: Sir Almroth Wright created a typhoid vaccine that was deployed during WW1, saving may lives.  During WW1 he established a laboratory researching wound infections.

True.  He was also prescient enough to foresee the risk of drug-resistant bacteria.  Of course he also thought that bacteria were associated with but not the cause of disease, and that scurvy was caused by poorly preserved meat.  Being right is hard.

Claim: Doctors at the time thought that a dry wound was more resistant to infection; however dryness inhibited white blood cells and thus ultimately increased infections. They also thought wounds needed to be completely covered to prevent reinfection, but this created the ideal environment for anaerobic bacteria like Clostridium perfringens (which causes gas gangrene).

True. I was surprised to find ideal wound moistness still isn’t entirely settled, but the book’s description seems essentially in good faith.  Demon goes on to say that by the 1920s, doctors believed they were basically powerless and their job was to get the body’s own healing systems a pillow and some tea.  They took this so far that:

“A physician doing drug research was a physician taken away from patient care. There was an unsavory aspect to a physician’s developing a drug for money. There were ethical questions about testing drugs on patients. Developing new drug therapies smacked of a return to the discredited age of bleedings and purgings.”

 

To repeat: researching new treatments was considered distasteful at best and morally outrageous at worst.  And brain differentiation was once considered phrenology redux.  I just don’t think we’re very good at seeing where medicine is going (p40).

Claim: Section on Leeuwenhoek. 

True but missing time data.  Given that everything discussed so far happened in the range of 1890-1920, I would have have explicitly mentioned I was going 250 years into the past.  As it was, the only reason I noticed was that I recognized some of the names on the list of Leeuwenhoek’s contemporaries. The kindle edition may have made this worse.   But everything Hager actually says on Leeuwenhoek’s work in inventing the microscope seems accurate.

Claim: [crickets] (no page)

There’s no false statements, but I found the absence of discussion of the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic puzzling.  Demon’s narrative is that seeing the horror of infected wounds in World War 1 drove Domangk to dedicate his life to preventing them.  Spanish Flu killed 5% of the entire world over the course of three years, and had a massive effect on troop movements and training in WW1.  From a military perspective it might have been more important.  We know now that the flu is really hard to vaccinate against, but at the time they didn’t even know it was a virus.  If you were a motivated medic looking for something to care about, Spanish Flu was a really obvious choice.  Demon mentions Spanish Flu in passing but not as an influence on Domangk, and that feels incomplete to me. Why gangrene in particular, when there were so many horrors happening at the time?

Claim: Streptococcus is the cause of everything bad.

True.  I knew it was possible to die from a scratch, but reading about everything strep causes really made me appreciate how few technological innovations are between us humans and mass die offs.  Strep causes childbed fever, St. Anthony’s Fire, meningitis, scarlet fever, pink eye, necrotizing fasciitis… Strep is the cockroach of human-infecting bacteria.  And for a while, all we had to do was take a pill and it was completely harmless.

Of course now we have MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) (whose natural habitat is the hospital, just like strep).  And multiply resistant gonorrhea.  And tuberculosis resistant to most known antibiotics.  The bad old days are on our heels, is what I’m saying.

One weird thing is I finished this book with the vague impression that sulfa drugs had saved a lot of lives but not actually knowing how many.  This article estimates that sulfa drugs led to a 2-3% drop in overall mortality, which translated to a 0.4-0.7 year increase in life expectancy.  That only covers up until 1943: presumably it had a bigger impact as distribution increased, or at least would have if penicillin had not taken over.

Overall Verdict

Pretty good, with some oversights.  Like Alchemy of Air the beginning is the best part, and if you find your attention flagging I’d just let it go.  I found the subject matter more innately interesting than Alchemy of Air but the writing a little less so.  Demon spends less time on the personal lives of the scientists, which was a selling point for my roommate but a disappointment for me.

This post supported by Patreon.

4 thoughts on “Epistemic Spot Check: The Demon Under the Microscope (Thomas Hager)”

  1. According to Wikipedia, the protection provided by the cholera vaccine is relatively short-lived; only about 50% effective 6-12 months out and less than 50% effective after that. I am not an epidemiologist, but it seems possible that you could still have trouble with a cholera with those numbers.

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