Monday, April 13, 2015

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

Recorded Books, 2014

This is a dual biography of two very different men, the German doctor and medical researcher Robert Koch, and the British doctor and fiction writer Arthur Conan Doyle. Both men started out as small town medical doctors. Both became advocates of a rigorous version of the scientific method, and of the utility of that method in public health and everyday life.

Both departed from it in later life, in unexpected ways.

Koch created much of the methodology of modern medical research, provided the first positive proof of bacteria as the cause of disease (anthrax), and at the height of his career, identified the bacillus that caused the most costly and devastating (in lives lost) disease of the age, tuberculosis. Then, in 1890, he made an even more significant announcement: he had a cure for tuberculosis.

Doyle, thirty years younger than Koch, was a practicing physician in the early stages of a literary career at the time. He snagged an assignment to go to Berlin and cover Koch's momentous announcement. While there, he also toured a ward where TB patients were being treated by Koch's method, asked many questions and made careful observations, and concluded that Koch's "remedy" was either sloppy science, or fraud. It took the rest of the scientific world a bit longer to come to the same conclusion.

Koch, who had done great work in the past and would again in the future, badly damaged his reputation and career with this episode, grounded in his feud with Louis Pasteur, and enabled by ignoring the very methods he himself had developed.

Meanwhile, Conan Doyle, emboldened by the success of his expedition to Berlin and the resulting story on it, changed direction, reducing and eventually ending his medical practice, while pursuing more actively his literary career. His most popular creation, Sherlock Holmes, relentlessly applied facts, logic, careful observation, and the scientific method to crime solving, helping to popularize the scientific method to a culture where it was still new and revolutionary.

Then, late in life, Conan Doyle, lifelong devotee of science and reason, was seduced by spiritualism, evoking questions about whether he had gone mad.

Goetz carefully develops the lives, careers, and characters of both men. Some will find the linking of the two men tenuous and a bit strained, and I think that's not unfair. Despite that, both are fascinating men, and Goetz tells their stories well.


I bought this book.