De Kruif, himself a bacteriologist who had worked at the University of Michigan and the renowned Rockefeller Institute, intended Microbe Hunters to be a popular account for adults of what he viewed as the critical scientific discoveries of the age. The success of Microbe Hunters, which was a best-seller, inspired de Kruif to go on to write more than a dozen other works on the subject of popular science.
In Microbe Hunters, de Kruif manages to convey complex scientific ideas in simple language. His headlong, highly opinionated style makes bacteriology as exciting as a suspense novel. While he appears to keep fairly close to his source material—presumably the original writings of his subjects, although he does not cite any sources—de Kruif interjects his own imagined musings, conversations, and scenes. “Rot!” Spallanzani responds to an antagonist, and in the midst of Koch’s research on anthrax, Frau Koch complains to her husband, “But Robert, you smell so!” At least she does so according to de Kruif.
This use of fictional techniques gives de Kruif’s tale a compelling narrative drive, but some may argue that it distorts the historical evidence. In fact, de Kruif does play loosely with the facts at times. For example, Leeuwenhoek was not a janitor, as he claims, but rather held an honorary post as custodian of the Delft Town Hall; he did not actually clean its corridors. De Kruif chose his subjects with an eye for the dramatic, but he does not fail to detail the day-to-day drudgery of testing hypothesis after...
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When de Kruif published Microbe Hunters in 1926, modern laboratory science was seen as a miracle worker. From Pasteur onward, science had stridden from success to success in the conquest of disease. Ehrlich’s “magic bullet” soon would be immortalized by Hollywood, and new revolutions, first of sulfa drugs and then of antibiotics, were just around the corner. In this context, de Kruif’s enthusiasm is understandable. Sinclair Lewis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Arrowsmith had appeared only a year earlier. Its protagonist, the physician Martin Arrowsmith, rang all the possible changes in the career of the microbe hunter, from country doctor to researcher at a giant foundation closely resembling the Rockefeller Institute. Lewis’ portrait of the young scientist as hero is as sympathetic, if marginally more subdued, as de Kruif’s depiction of heroic scientists. It is no coincidence that de Kruif served as Lewis’ scientific adviser in the writing of Arrowsmith, and Arrowsmith finds his career niche in the novel with de Kruif’s ideal setting—as a lonely researcher on a tropic island.
Microbe Hunters is still a remarkably good read. Although originally written for adults, its nontechnical language is quite accessible to younger readers and its cheer-leading approach is still inspiring. Nevertheless, de Kruif’s entirely uncritical attitude toward scientific practice should give the modern reader pause. His failure to see scientists and science as anything but heroic and progressive may not be the best message to convey to younger readers.