Microbe Hunters Critical Essays

Paul De Kruif


(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 646 words.)