- Microbe Hunters—Then and Now
In 1926 Paul De Kruif acquainted the public with the research of nineteenth-century bacteriologists in his romanticized and engaging book Microbe Hunters. In this new volume, editors Hilary Koprowski and Michael B. A. Oldstone have assembled a distinguished group of microbe hunters to bring the story up-to-date. There all resemblance to De Kruif’s book ends. Pairs of short articles about different infectious diseases—one on the history of the disease, and one on current research—relate the remarkable progress that has been achieved in the twentieth century. Nearly two-thirds of the book is devoted to efforts to find vaccines for viral diseases of animals, with paired chapters on smallpox, rabies, measles, yellow fever, polio, varicella, influenza, hepatitis B, and HIV. The remainder of the book includes chapters on emerging viruses, rubella, plant viruses, bacteria, parasites, prions, and mucosal immunity. Bacteria are represented by tuberculosis, lyme disease, Helicobacter pylori, and pneumococcal vaccines; malaria is the only parasitic disease included. Though more eclectic, these latter chapters still focus on research into pathogenesis and the potential for new vaccines.
The eminent scientist-authors in this volume are all intimately involved in the research about which they write. For example, D. A. Henderson, director of the World Health Organization program to eradicate smallpox, wrote the chapter on “Smallpox Eradication”; Nobel Prize winner Thomas H. Weller wrote on the “History of Varicella Virus”; and “Human Retroviruses: Current Concepts” was written by Robert Gallo and Howard Streicher. The writing style that scientists customarily use, however, is likely to make the book difficult reading for Paul De Kruif’s audience. It will be better received by other scientists, and will provide an account of their heritage for graduate students in these fields.
Two accounts of the identification of new infectious agents come closest to the stories of disease detection that made De Kruif famous: T. Ulf Westblom’s chapter on Barry Marshall’s efforts to persuade gastroenterologists of the role of Helicobacter pylori in gastric ulcers, and Stanley B. Prusiner’s story of “The Prion Saga.” For the most part, the historical chapters read as though written for microbiology textbooks: they list the first appearances of the disease, the first recognition of the disease agent, and the principal research that (in some cases) led to vaccines, while the microbe hunters appear primarily as bibliography references. Two exceptions are the chapters on “Milestones in the Conquest of Yellow Fever,” by Thomas P. Monath, and “The Early Study of Tobacco Mosaic Virus,” by Ton van Helvoort: both provide lively and readable accounts of the history in a very few pages. Insights from the participants that historians might expect to find in these chapters are rare.
The chapters on current research are scientific reviews of the literature, many done in the very technical language of molecular immunology. Historians interested in vaccine development will appreciate the extensive bibliographies. One thing the reviews make clear, as Thomas Weller points out, is that “what is [End Page 143] different is the vast spectrum of molecular tools available to the modern microbe hunter” (p. 171). Polymerase-chain-reaction and related recombinant-DNA technologies have shortened the time between the discovery of a disease agent and the development of vaccines. Today, as Edwin Kilbourne points out in his chapter on influenza virology (p. 187), microbe hunters focus on the virus and what it does. They are as likely to link a known agent to an unknown disease as the reverse.