Microbe Hunters Critical Context - Essay

Paul De Kruif

Critical Context

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.