In 1875, tuberculosis was the deadliest disease in the world, accountable for a third of all deaths. Read more...
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 a 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."
Consumed with curing consumption
In August 1891, a young physician named Arthur Conan Doyle made an impulsive decision to travel to Berlin to attend a much-anticipated lecture on tuberculosis by the renowned scientist Robert Koch. The two men had much in common, as author Thomas Goetz points out in his fascinating new book, The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis. Ambitious and frustrated by the confines of small-town medical practice, both were part of the exciting landscape of late-19th-century breakthroughs in science and medicine. Tuberculosis, that ubiquitous scourge of 19th-century life, would play a major role in the lives of both men.
Koch had already found his path from obscurity to fame, beginning with his discovery of Bacillus anthracis in 1876. He then took on wound infections and developed scientific protocols for determining infectious agents. In 1882, firmly ensconced as the head of his own lab, he triumphantly discovered the bacteria that caused tuberculosis.
Koch would eventually be awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1905, five years before his death. Conan Doyle, whose first wife succumbed to tuberculosis, was equally driven and inspired by the process of discovery, though his path took him away from medicine and into the realm of literature.
Goetz weaves together a compelling narrative, chronicling the struggle to find the causes and cures for some of the most ferocious diseases that have stalked humans (and animals) through time: cholera, smallpox, anthrax and tuberculosis. In The Remedy we meet not just Koch and Doyle, but Louis Pasteur, whose public feud with Koch about anthrax helped to energize scientific breakthroughs in both men’s labs.
Perhaps most importantly, The Remedy reminds us of how far we have come, and how much we take for granted in modern medicine. Tuberculosis is still very much with us. Just as we thought we had bested the bacterium, multi-drug-resistant TB has emerged. As Goetz reminds us, in the end, “The bacteria precede us. They outnumber us. And they will outlast us.”