The story of a pair of unlikely heroes who crossed paths in Berlin in 1890 and forever changed the landscapes of medicine and literature.
In the late 19th century, tuberculosis was an incurable scourge that killed indiscriminately and ravaged populations; for decades, it was the leading cause of death in Europe and the United States. The origin of the disease was a complete mystery, as was its uncanny ability to travel from one person to another. One young country doctor in Germany, Robert Koch (1843–1910), became determined to apply new theories of microbiology to his study of TB. His great breakthrough, that “germs” are isolatable bacteria that have infectious properties, profoundly changed the field of medicine. Meanwhile, another young country doctor, Arthur Conan Doyle, followed news of Koch’s discovery from England. A moonlighting writer, Doyle traveled to Berlin when Koch announced a demonstration of a “cure” he’d devised from his laboratory research. Doyle’s disappointment was acute; while Koch’s germ theories were revolutionary, his remedy was bunk. Doyle pulled no punches in his takedown of Koch’s remedy, but what he learned about Koch’s methodology and earlier success left an indelible impression on his fiction. The idea of scientific detective work inspired Doyle to give up medicine and pursue literature full-time, and the character Sherlock Holmes—with his signature “science of deduction” technique—was born. Atlantic correspondent Goetz (The Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in the New Era of Personalized Medicine, 2010) weaves these two narratives through a history of medical best practices, a fascinating period marked by improved hygienic practices and the possibility of new vaccines. Koch’s legacy remains robust (he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1905 despite his remedy gaffe), and his great accomplishment is a tenet that Doyle held dear in his stories: There exists a possibility of defense from any attacking agent, so long as the right clues are uncovered.
A beguiling real-life medical detective story.