In the history of medicine, sulfa was just a short blip: The antibiotic achieved wide distribution in the mid-1930s; a decade later, it had all but disappeared. But during its short lifetime, this miracle drug saved millions of lives; helped shape the course of WWII; and set the stage for the transformation of pharmaceutical research and medical practice. Thomas Hager's The Demon Under the Microscope is a fast-paced, fact-filled chronicle of a drug that changed the world by changing microscopic bacteria.
Modern bacteriology was born on the battlefields of WWI, where bacteria-rich trenches added to the toll of millions of soldiers killed. Not coincidentally, the search for anything that would significantly diminish the deadly power of disease largely occurred between the world wars, mostly in Germany. Gerhard Domagk and his colleagues at Bayer (a subsidiary of I.G. Farben) worked feverishly to identify which microscopic squiggles might render humankind forever safe from malaria and tuberculosis. The answer, discovered in 1932, turned out to be sulfa drugs, the precursors to modern antibiotics. Hager, a biographer of Linus Pauling, does a remarkable job of transforming material fit for a biology graduate seminar into highly entertaining reading. He knows that lay readers need plenty of personality and local color, and his story is rich with both. This yarn prefigures the modern rush for corporate pharma patents; it is testament to Hager's skill that the inherently unsexy process of finding the chemicals that might help conquer strep is as exciting as an account of the hunt for a Russian submarine. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
The "demon" in the title refers to the disease-causing bacteria that killed off innumerable human populations before the advent of modern drugs. In this fascinating and highly readable account, science and medical writer Hager narrates the story of the race to find the "magic bullet" to eliminate diseases such as pneumonia, childbed fever, and gonorrhea. He details the primitive state of medicine during World War I, when more soldiers (and civilians) died from infection than from wounds received during combat. The war itself spurred scientists to research the causes of bacterial infections and search for a cure, which spawned fierce competition between German and French companies. Hager connects early innovations in medicine to the fortuitous and intuitive leaps that allowed early 20th-century researchers to create sulfa, the first antibiotic. Hager also documents the first abuse of antibiotics: physicians using patients as guinea pigs, guessing wildly about correct dosing, and prescribing sulfa for every perceived malady. One is left with a sense of gratitude for the relative safety of modern medical practices. Highly recommended.-Janet M. Schneider, James A. Haley Veterans' Hosp. Lib., Tampa, FL Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Adult/High School-An exciting, fast-paced read, Demon opens with a grisly scene at Tripler General Hospital in Hawaii as ambulances, trucks, and private cars drop off the injured from Pearl Harbor. Men who were wounded, dismembered, and literally roasted in the harbor oil fires from exploding ships were tended to on the lawns outside the hospital and in three operating rooms that ran continuously for 11 hours. Not a single patient died due to infection, in dramatic contrast to World War I, when it was estimated that more soldiers died of infection than in combat. What was the difference? Sulfa drugs-antibiotics. The story of their discovery reads much like a suspense novel, set against the backdrop of World War I trench warfare and political intrigue in Europe leading up to World War II. The scientific leaders in medical research, Gerhard Domagk at Bayer, Sir Almroth Wright's group "The Lords," and Ernest Fourneau at the Pasteur Institute, conducted meticulous work and experienced accidental discoveries that advanced medical procedures and determined the protocols for drug testing. Great reading both for curriculum support and general interest.-Brigeen Radoicich, Fresno County Office of Education, CA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
The fascinating story of the world's first antibiotic. Science-writer Hager (Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling, 1995) asserts that sulfa, which was eventually displaced as a miracle drug by penicillin, holds a unique place in the history of medical science. It banished the notion, widely held among doctors, that chemicals would never be able to cure most diseases; it established the research methods for finding new drugs; and it created the business model for developing them. Hager's account opens on the battlefields of World War II, where wound infection was a gruesome killer, then moves to postwar Germany, where industrial chemists manipulating azo dye molecules discovered that the addition of sulfanilamide (sulfa) created a chemical with bacteria-fighting properties. In England, doctors tried the new dye-based German wonder drug Prontosil on hospital patients; in France, researchers found that sulfa alone was the effective agent; and in the U.S., great quantities of sulfa-containing patent medicines were soon developed and marketed. The author enlivens his tale with a host of personalities, including German industrialist Carl Duisberg, head of the Bayer company; Heinrich Horlein, who ran Bayer's pharmaceutical division; researcher Gerhard Domagk, whose work won him a Nobel Prize, which the Nazis would not permit him to accept; and French chemist Ernest Fourneau, whose discovery of the power of sulfa on its own greatly dismayed the German makers of Prontosil. Hager also provides a vivid picture of Germany at the peak of its prestige in the international scientific community and of a very different country under the Nazis. Of special interest is the cautionary tale of theMassengill Company's Elixir Sulfanilamide, which contained an industrial solvent and killed more than 100 people in the U.S. This disaster led to an overhaul of the nation's drug laws, including passage of the 1938 Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. It put an end, the author states, to the era of patent medicines and launched the age of antibiotics. A rousing, valuable contribution to the history of medicine.