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Thomas Goetz – The Remedy

May 30, 2014

LibraryThing Early Reviewers39. The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz (2014)

Length: 320 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction; History

Started: 13 April 2014
Finished: 13 May 2014

Where did it come from? LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.
Why do I have it? As I’m starting to read more and more non-fiction, the history of science is always something I’m interested in reading more of.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 10 February 2014.

Dying of TB
was not as romantic as
writiers made it seem.

Summary: For most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, tuberculosis, otherwise known as consumption, was a fact of life – and most often, of death. Poorly understood, this untreatable disease resulted in a high death toll every year, and an even larger population living with this chronic condition. But in the 1870s, a small-town German doctor, Robert Koch, began examining the causes of infectious diseases, starting with anthrax, and eventually moving on to tuberculosis. Koch developed strict rules of experimentation and evidence that would form the basis of modern scientific methods, and these rigorous protocols eventually helped convince the scientific and medical communities of the truth of the germ theory of disease. This placed Koch into an immediate rivalry with the French scientist Louis Pasteur, and no prize was more fiercely sought than a cure to tuberculosis. When Koch made the announcement that he’d done it, millions flocked to Germany in hope of receiving this miracle treatment. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was among them, seeking to report on this phenomenon. Yet what he discovered was that Koch’s treatment didn’t work – at least not in the way Koch claimed it did – and as he returned to England, he gave up his medical practice and began writing stories featuring a character who used the scientific methods Koch had created: Sherlock Holmes.

Review: While I quite enjoyed this book, I want to start by addressing what I thought was its weakest part; namely: the connection between Koch and Conan Doyle. The connection between them is tenuous at best – they never actually met, nor did Conan Doyle see Koch’s public talk announcing the remedy firsthand, although he did visit a ward of patients being treated with the “cure”. I also wasn’t entirely convinced of the singularity of this episode in convincing Conan Doyle to give up medicine and become a writer full-time, especially since Sherlock Holmes had actually been created some three years previously. The biographies of each of these men are interesting on their own, but they are not as closely linked as the book would have us believe, and I’m not entirely clear why Goetz felt the need to lump them together – unless that’s just the current trend in history books, to tell two stories instead of one (see also The Devil in the White City). Regardless, it wound up feeling like the book was overselling the connection, making some of the transitions rather abrupt, and almost feeling like each of the individual stories got somewhat shortchanged.

On a more positive note, I did really enjoy each of the pieces. Koch’s story in particular fascinated me; I was familiar with at least the names of many of his contemporaries that appear in this story (Pasteur, Virchow, etc.), but I had never heard of Koch before beginning this book. In retrospect, that’s kind of shocking; even if his TB cure did turn out to be ineffective (if not fraudulent), he made some major discoveries, and y’know, formulated the principles of experimentation that all of modern science is based on. So if nothing else, this book closed a major gap in my knowledge of the history of my own field. I also thought it did a really good job of emphasizing how very different the world was in the 1870s-90s, in terms of mortality rates and causes, sanitation, basic attitudes about disease and medicine, and the rash of newly invented technology that we nowadays take for granted. (I mean, sure, the internal combustion engine and the telephone, but also: the paperclip! matches!) I also picked up some history of medicine trivia that had escaped me before. (For example, Lister’s method of sterilizing wounds was to pour a solution of carbolic acid (phenol) onto them! Phenol is nasty stuff, and today, getting phenol on bare skin is more likely to land you in the ER than be a treatment once you get there.)

So, overall, I found this book an easy and interesting read, with a lot of good information – but not all of it was quite as well connected as I think Goetz intended. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I think doctors, biologists, and people interested in the history of science and medicine would really enjoy this. Fans of Sherlock Holmes might find it interesting as well, but the focus is much more on the scientific side of things.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Jenn’s Bookshelves, S. Krishna’s Books, Sophisticated Dorkiness and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: In train after train, consumptives filled the passenger cars, their hacks and coughs competing with steam whistles and screaming brakes as the engines came to a halt in Potsdamer Platz.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 55: ““If I had the honor of being a surgeon, convinced as I am of the dangers caused by the germs of microbes scattered on the surface of every object, particularly in the hospitals, not only would I use absolutely clean instruments, but, after cleansing my hands with the greatest care … I would only make use of charpie, bandages, and sponges which had previously been raised to a heat of 130˚ C to 150˚ C.”” – Straight threads obtained by unraveling old linen cloth, used for surgical dressings.
  • p. 129: ““”To preach long, loud and sanitation” is the modern doctor’s version of this apophthegm, and we do “cry them up,” and run after them to save us from “germs” and all other imps of scientific imagination.”” – a short cryptic remark containing some general or generally accepted truth; maxim.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2014 3:49 pm

    Glad to hear the focus is more on the scientific side! I’m not terribly interested in Sherlock Holmes and his genesis, so I might just skip those bits. It’s the history of science that really interests me.

    • June 2, 2014 7:49 pm

      I think you’ll be good, then. Except for the brief introduction, Doyle doesn’t even show up for a good hundred pages or so.

  2. June 3, 2014 9:05 pm

    I totally agree with you about the connection between Doyle and Koch — it’s incidental, really, and not as compelling as the subtitle wants to suggest. But other than that, I thought this was a great read. I’m glad you enjoyed the science aspects too.

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