Ruminations on Paul de Kruif’s _Microbe Hunters_

Dear Reader,

A Note: this review began on an immensely positive note and in immensely positive feelings, but some of the darker elements of the book really “stuck in my craw” as a professor of mine would say. You are forewarned…

I can see why Paul de Kruif’s international best seller has been reprinted several times.

Kruif’s storytelling ability is impressive, his candor infectious, and his speculation comic.

For those of you who don’t know much about it, Microbe Hunters is something of a legendary book about focusing on 12 ‘microbe hunters.’ Microbe Hunters serves as a catch all for those engaging with medicine, health, and microorganisms… so basically precursors to and founders of bacteriology, virology, immunology, etc are memorialized and simultaneously humanized and deified.

The book has 12 chapters, each of which typically focuses on the accomplishments of one great figure in Microbe Hunting — though there are actually two chapters on Pasteur, and two shared chapters.

Believe it or not, all 350 pages of the book are a pleasure to read. Quite an accomplishment for an 86 year old chronicling of scientific figures.

Kruif focuses on major discoveries of microorganisms in their relation to causing illness. Most chapters end up focusing on bacteria, but some chapters look at discoveries around trypanosomatids (read: microscopic parasites) and one chapter focuses on a virus (although it is not referred to that by Kruif… which is reasonable considering that viruses were a largely theoretical, nearly wholly unobserved phenomenon in 1926).

The biggest strength of the book has to be Kruif’s narrative liberties, and trust me I never thought I would say or write something like that. He injects speculative scenes and dialog to flesh out his historical characters — for at its heart, the book presents them as just that: characters. Normally, this type of speculation would drive me mad, but there is something about how Kruif does it that just works for him. The use of such speculative passages is twofold: firstly, to humanize his hunter, and secondly, to personalize the thoughts and discoveries of said hunter. Through speculation on what Elie Metchnikoff said during his famous starfish experiment, or imagined dialog between Pasteur and his wife, Kruif manages to complexly deify and humanize his hunters, to put them on unreachable pedestals while also putting them in his readers’ hearts. It is at times mesmerizing.

On the other hand, though, Kruif’s treatment of women and race are very problematic.

The oftentimes significant contributions of the wives/research partners of several hunters are relegated to ‘loyal assistance’ and the like. Women come off as badgers or test tube washers and little more in this book, which also tends to praise masculinity — if you doubt me, take a look at the chapter on Reed and yellow fever.

The issue of race at first appears to be primarily a classic set of omissions… until you come to chapter 9, on the Tsetse fly and African Sleeping Sickness (focusing on the discoveries of David Bruce… of course all but ignoring his wife’s work). The primitivist portrayal of African peoples — particularly the Zulu — is rather jarring. More unsettling than this, though, is Kruif’s admiration for David Bruce’s “flimflamming [African’s in the hospital] into thinking the operation [a spinal tap] would do them good, this liar in the holy cause of microbe hunting jabbed his needles into the smalls of the backs of negroes with broken legs and with headaches, into youngsters who had just been circumcised, and into their brothers or sisters who were suffering from yaws, or the itch; from all of them he got spinal fluid;” and of course “it was a great success” (259). The two chapters immediately following (covering Ross’s and Grassi’s work on Malaria, and Walter Reed’s work on Yellow Fever) are relatively comparably racist in their portrayal of Indians and Cubans, respectively.

The presence and logic of this racism is startling with how neatly it dovetails with what Roberto Esposito, following Foucault, has written about the role of racism in political autoimmunity. I won’t go into detail about what Esposito says since this is a short, informal book review on my blog, but you can turn to the chapter on Thanatopolitics in Bios for more detail.

The basic idea, though, is that in a thanatopolitics, one group believes their own survival and security is predicated on the death of another group. What we are seeing in Kruif’s essay, and in a lot of other horrifying places in the history of medicine in America — see Harriet A. Washington’s Medical Apartheid for the horrifying details — is something of a precursor to the thanatopolitical. The sanction of the experimentation upon the bodies of other peoples for the gain of another group, the admission that the one group of people is worth sacrificing for the security of another, is precisely what fuels the autoimmune reaction, where life destroys life in a misguided effort to save it.

I know, I’ve gotten a bit lofty and circuitous, but I’ll put it more simply: the explicit or implicit sanction of bodily violence to another group for one’s own security is the beginning of the end of that security. Put another way, the moment that life takes life in order to save life, life approaches a horizon of irreparable separation from itself.

I’m skirting around talking about bare life, whatever life, political life, the good life, etc, but you get the picture.

In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Microbe Hunters, and it truly gave me a window into popular medicine in the early twentieth century; however, it also reminded me of one of the major problems with a lot of great literature and great medicine: we forget about the damage done to non-white, non-male groups, be it representational or physical. And this we cannot forget, because either way, it is all too real.

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  1. Pingback:The (Re v De)Humanization of the Academy « Limits of Life: Biopolitics, Posthumanism, Zombies

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