The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis

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The riveting history of tuberculosis, the world’s most lethal disease, the two men whose lives it tragically intertwined, and the birth of medical science.
In 1875, tuberculosis was the deadliest disease in the world, accountable for a third of all deaths. A diagnosis of TB—often called consumption—was a death sentence. Then, in triumph of medical science, a German doctor named Robert Koch deployed an ...

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The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis

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The riveting history of tuberculosis, the world’s most lethal disease, the two men whose lives it tragically intertwined, and the birth of medical science.
In 1875, tuberculosis was the deadliest disease in the world, accountable for a third of all deaths. A diagnosis of TB—often called consumption—was a death sentence. Then, in triumph of medical science, a German doctor named Robert Koch deployed an unprecedented scientific rigor to discover the bacteria that caused TB. Koch soon embarked on a remedy—a remedy that would be his undoing.
When Koch announced his cure for consumption, Arthur Conan Doyle, then a small-town doctor in England and sometime writer, went to Berlin to cover the event. Touring the ward of reportedly cured patients, he was horrified. Koch’s “remedy” was either sloppy science or outright fraud.
But to a world desperate for relief, Koch’s remedy wasn’t so easily dismissed. As Europe’s consumptives descended upon Berlin, Koch urgently tried to prove his case. Conan Doyle, meanwhile, returned to England determined to abandon medicine in favor of writing. In particular, he turned to a character inspired by the very scientific methods that Koch had formulated: Sherlock Holmes.
Capturing the moment when mystery and magic began to yield to science, The Remedy chronicles the stunning story of how the germ theory of disease became a true fact, how two men of ambition were emboldened to reach for something more, and how scientific discoveries evolve into social truths.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

German-born Nobel Prize winner Robert Koch (1843-1910) is honored today as father of microbiology, but his scientific career was not without a blemish. In the process of his history-making research on tuberculosis, he became convinced that he could cure it. In 1890, one young British doctor was so impressed by that possibility that he traveled to Berlin to witness what was to be a triumphant demonstration. That physician was Arthur Conan Doyle. His critique helped undo Koch's claims, but it might have served another purpose by helping to inspire the creation of another sharp-eyed empiricist: Sherlock Holmes. A readable narrative by former Wired executive editor Thomas Goetz.

Publishers Weekly
Former Wired executive editor Goetz (The Decision Tree) offers an intriguing medical and literary history based on “accidental partners in a profound social shift toward science and away from superstition.” Robert Koch, a meticulous and ambitious German country doctor-turned-scientist, isolated the bacteria causing TB and, Goetz writes, in doing so “offered a template” not only for medical science but for “all scientific investigation.” Physician and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle also viewed “science as a tool,” and Koch’s work in microbiology “provided the template” for Doyle’s fictional detective’s fascination “with minuscule detail.” Though his scientific work remains an important legacy, Koch never achieved the fame he sought in finding a cure for TB. Yet, Goetz notes, “Koch’s science became a kind of remedy nonetheless,” changing the perception of the disease as “something that could be understood and defended against.” Ironically, Doyle, though an admirer of Koch, would ultimately help debunk Koch’s failed theory that an injection of “lymph” could cure TB. But this pair’s fascinating, convergent stories have much more in common, as Goetz aptly demonstrates that both Koch and Doyle were doggedly inquisitive men who discovered that neither germs nor crime are any match for science. Agent: Chris Calhoun. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews
The story of a pair of unlikely heroes who crossed paths in Berlin in 1890 and forever changed the landscapes of medicine and literature. In the late 19th century, tuberculosis was an incurable scourge that killed indiscriminately and ravaged populations; for decades, it was the leading cause of death in Europe and the United States. The origin of the disease was a complete mystery, as was its uncanny ability to travel from one person to another. One young country doctor in Germany, Robert Koch (1843–1910), became determined to apply new theories of microbiology to his study of TB. His great breakthrough, that "germs" are isolatable bacteria that have infectious properties, profoundly changed the field of medicine. Meanwhile, another young country doctor, Arthur Conan Doyle, followed news of Koch's discovery from England. A moonlighting writer, Doyle traveled to Berlin when Koch announced a demonstration of a "cure" he'd devised from his laboratory research. Doyle's disappointment was acute; while Koch's germ theories were revolutionary, his remedy was bunk. Doyle pulled no punches in his takedown of Koch's remedy, but what he learned about Koch's methodology and earlier success left an indelible impression on his fiction. The idea of scientific detective work inspired Doyle to give up medicine and pursue literature full-time, and the character Sherlock Holmes—with his signature "science of deduction" technique—was born. Atlantic correspondent Goetz (The Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in the New Era of Personalized Medicine, 2010) weaves these two narratives through a history of medical best practices, a fascinating period marked by improved hygienic practices and the possibility of new vaccines. Koch's legacy remains robust (he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1905 despite his remedy gaffe), and his great accomplishment is a tenet that Doyle held dear in his stories: There exists a possibility of defense from any attacking agent, so long as the right clues are uncovered. A beguiling real-life medical detective story.
Library Journal
Goetz (Decision Tree; former executive editor, Wired) offers a brief and insightful double biography of two doctors: German-born Robert Koch (1843–1910), the "father of microbiology," who was convinced he had found a remedy for tuberculosis, and Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930), who traveled to Germany to witness this cure and eventually helped to debunk it. Koch used meticulous application of scientific principles to discover the cause of the disease and Doyle employed the scientific approach as a model for his fictional sleuth Sherlock Holmes's crime-solving methods. Koch's life, from his initial work with anthrax through the discovery of the cause of tuberculosis, the "tubercle bacillus," and his reported medicine development is described. It is combined with the story of Doyle's rise as a physician, his interest in Koch's work (including the trip to Germany to hear about his remedy), as well as his desire to share the events, and how he used those medical skills to create the Holmes episodes. VERDICT This book will be of interest to those who enjoy reading about history and science and 19th-century Europe, as well as fans of Sherlock Holmes. It is a pleasure to read, contains solid notes for additional information, and will have a wide appeal.—Eric D. Albright, Tufts Univ. Lib., Boston
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781592407514
  • Publisher: Gotham
  • Publication date: 4/3/2014
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 87,294
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas Goetz is the author of two books. A correspondent at the Atlantic and entrepreneur in residence at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, he holds a master of public health from the University of California, Berkeley and a master in literature from the University of Virginia. The former executive editor of WIRED, he speaks frequently on medicine and science.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 3, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    The Remedy takes you through medical and literary history, right

    The Remedy takes you through medical and literary history, right around the time the foundation was laid for modern medicine. Handwashing was controversial. Hospitals had open jars of ointment in the operating room, and surgeons would scoop out what they needed without washing their hands in between patients. This book made me thankful for germ theory. For basic hygiene. For vaccines!

    I couldn't wait to find out what happened next. I really got a feel for how relentless tuberculosis was, and how hopeless it seemed. Would the public be convinced of Koch's findings? Would other scientists be swayed? I found this book to be absolutely riveting, and that surprised me when I considered it's basically a non-fiction book about germs, medicine, and scientific research. But it reads in a narrative style, in layman's terms; so it was enjoyable throughout, and I didn't once feel bogged down.

    The Arthur Conan Doyle connection was a teensy bit looser than I had hoped it would be, but it was an interesting angle nonetheless. I was impressed by how cutting-edge Sherlock Holmes's forensic methods were for the time, and what a huge impact these novels had on the scientific community.

    I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 8, 2014

    In "The Remedy" you will find out the shocking tale of

    In "The Remedy" you will find out the shocking tale of a tiny slice of medical history that has been tucked away in the vast volumes of bygone times.

    When I first found out about Thomas Goetz's book, I immediately became intrigued with the fact that the beloved Arthur Conan Doyle (author of the world's favorite detective stories!) somehow involved himself in the cure for such a tremendous disease as Tuberculosis. And how did he do it?

    In the 19th century, consumption (or TB) took 25% of all deaths in America and England. For someone to locate a medicine for it would be life-changing for hundreds of thousands. 

    While reading, I became simply amazed with all the information contained in this one book. Somehow the author fits in everything you need to know about medical science of the 1800s, the emerging germ theories of the time, the physicians and scientists that got us to where we are today, and 2 very important men at the center of the story... Dr. Robert Koch, a German physician who discovers the TB bacteria. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a doctor from the UK, with a hand for writing, and an eye for spotting details. (No wonder Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes... for you will see Holmes's methods at work in the real world, utilized by Conan Doyle himself.)

    "To grasp the significance of Koch's discovery, we must first get our heads around this: To live in the nineteenth century was to experience infectious disease as a constant, to have unexplained illnesses afflict and dispatch loved ones without warning. Simply put, more people died of more things back then than do now...." (Page 89)

    Goetz is a master on the subjects he brings out in the book. He has put together many facts about science and medicine, and draws the parallels of history well.

    So as not to build your hopes too high before reading "The Remedy"... Conan Doyle does not come up with the astounding elixir for an incurable disease himself. But I think he helped bring details to the public eye that others hadn't taken the time to notice.

    Cons: The one thing I disapprove of is the author's use of a couple words in the text. Usually I would deduct a star in my review for this type of foul language, but I still love the book so much because of the infinite information it offers. However, I do wish the text wasn't marred at all.

    In the end, "The Remedy" is an amazing story to be told. It's a fantastic "mix of literature and history and science" (Goetz's words). I think it will be a while before I can find another historic tale as gripping as this one.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 11, 2014

    More than a book about the history of medicine and the fascinati

    More than a book about the history of medicine and the fascinating story of the discovery of the causative agent of tuberculosis, The Remedy also details one of the more interesting and untold aspects of science: competition and the role of the nemesis, as it evolved between Koch and Pasteur, and the hubris it can sometimes produce. This is a great read for those interested in the history of science and the importance of the late 19th century in moving us into the modern medical age. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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