A novel from Belfer (City of Lights, 1999) about the race to develop penicillin and other antibiotics during World War II.
Claire, a photographer with Life magazine, is sent to cover a groundbreaking discovery by scientists at Manhattan’s Rockefeller Institute. A mold seems to have generated a lifesaving drug, and doctors at the Institute are testing it on patients suffering from infections. Claire is deeply invested in her assignment—long ago, she lost a daughter to blood poisoning. She’s drawn to Jamie, the handsome doctor administering the trials. Now divorced, single-handedly raising son Charlie and tentatively healing her long estrangement from her Wall Street kingpin father, Rutherford, Claire is shocked when patients on the verge of recovery die—supplies of penicillin, grown haphazardly in bottles and bedpans, are too sparse for a complete course of treatment. When the United States enters the war after Pearl Harbor, pharmaceutical companies, including some still-familiar players like Merck and Pfizer, compete to be the first to mass-produce penicillin. The success of the war effort and, of course, scads of money are at stake. Jamie’s sister Tia, a Rockefeller mycologist, is investigating other antimicrobial agents found in soil, known as penicillin’s “cousins.” Tia has just isolated a particularly promising specimen when she falls from a cliff near the Institute—or was she pushed? The sample she was cataloguing, notable for its startling blue color, disappears. The government, with the cooperation of Life publisher Henry Luce, enlists Claire to document the progress Pharma is making on the penicillin front. Rutherford has an entrepreneurial interest in patentable antibiotics. When Nick, a doctor from an impoverished immigrant background, who had flirted with Tia, offers to sell Rutherford a strikingly cerulean “cousin,” Rutherford bites, but now he’s keeping secrets from Claire. Jamie, who’s engaged to Claire, returns from service in North Africa to find his romance disrupted by the fact that his prospective father-in-law might have ordered his sister’s murder.
A ponderously paced historical thriller.