An encyclopedic reference for researchers and practitioners but also accessible for general readers due to Rosen’s lively...



A richly documented history of the rise—and threatened future—of antibiotics.

Before the invention of antibiotics, doctors practiced “heroic medicine,” rebalancing the body’s humors with bloodletting, blistering, purges, enemas, and other primitive techniques. But in the late 1800s came Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, and suddenly the world knew that cholera, plague, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and other maladies were caused by invisible microbes: bacteria. So began the hunt for remedies. There were some successes—antitoxin for diphtheria, a vaccine for anthrax—but competition and venomous rivalries prevailed, pitting Pasteur against Koch, France against Germany. Rosen’s (The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century, 2014, etc.) warts-and-all sketches of the key figures serve as refreshing antidotes to the hero-worship texts we read as schoolchildren. The author also deftly contrasts Germany’s synthetic dye industry, which funded research that led to Paul Ehrlich’s Salvarsan for syphilis, with the feeble research support elsewhere. But the real revolution in remedies had to wait until World War II and the rediscovery of penicillin, when British scientists came to America for help in the fermentation process needed to generate copious amounts of the extract. Then came Selman Waksman, who coined the word “antibiotic” and found in a soil sample a bacterial strain that produced its own antibacterial product that worked against TB. The race was on for other useful soil microbes, and numerous drug companies emerged (and merged), from small producers of herbals and botanicals to big-time generators of lucrative broad-spectrum antibiotics. Rosen also charts the course of the FDA and the development of testing and safety protocols. Unfortunately, the current scene is ominous. Antibiotic resistance is serious and continues to grow thanks to low dosages of antibiotics still allowed in animal feeds. Rosen offers some hope regarding new approaches to combat resistance, but they seem meager.

An encyclopedic reference for researchers and practitioners but also accessible for general readers due to Rosen’s lively depiction of the people, places, and politics that color the history of the fight against infectious disease.

Pub Date: May 9, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-525-42810-7

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: March 7, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2017

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A quirky wonder of a book.



A Peabody Award–winning NPR science reporter chronicles the life of a turn-of-the-century scientist and how her quest led to significant revelations about the meaning of order, chaos, and her own existence.

Miller began doing research on David Starr Jordan (1851-1931) to understand how he had managed to carry on after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed his work. A taxonomist who is credited with discovering “a full fifth of fish known to man in his day,” Jordan had amassed an unparalleled collection of ichthyological specimens. Gathering up all the fish he could save, Jordan sewed the nameplates that had been on the destroyed jars directly onto the fish. His perseverance intrigued the author, who also discusses the struggles she underwent after her affair with a woman ended a heterosexual relationship. Born into an upstate New York farm family, Jordan attended Cornell and then became an itinerant scholar and field researcher until he landed at Indiana University, where his first ichthyological collection was destroyed by lightning. In between this catastrophe and others involving family members’ deaths, he reconstructed his collection. Later, he was appointed as the founding president of Stanford, where he evolved into a Machiavellian figure who trampled on colleagues and sang the praises of eugenics. Miller concludes that Jordan displayed the characteristics of someone who relied on “positive illusions” to rebound from disaster and that his stand on eugenics came from a belief in “a divine hierarchy from bacteria to humans that point[ed]…toward better.” Considering recent research that negates biological hierarchies, the author then suggests that Jordan’s beloved taxonomic category—fish—does not exist. Part biography, part science report, and part meditation on how the chaos that caused Miller’s existential misery could also bring self-acceptance and a loving wife, this unique book is an ingenious celebration of diversity and the mysterious order that underlies all existence.

A quirky wonder of a book.

Pub Date: April 14, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5011-6027-1

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Jan. 2, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...


Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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