Author Thomas Hager on breakthrough antibiotics, big discoveries, and how to tell a good science story

Not so many decades ago, a cut or scrape, if it became infected, could be deadly. On the battlefields of World War I, dirty wounds bred gas gangrene, a condition as revolting as it was hard to treat. For women in childbirth, the touch of an attendant’s unwashed hands often caused a mysterious fever that carried off thousands of women and left as many children motherless.

Bacterial infection dogged humanity for millennia, until a mild-mannered German chemist named Gerhard Domagk dosed a group of strep-infected lab mice with an experimental compound called Kl-695. The mice recovered and, on Christmas day 1932, a patent was filed for Streptozon, the world’s first antibiotic. It was also the first so-called sulfa drug, one of a powerful class of sulfur-containing antibiotics that interfere with bacterial metabolism. Sulfa drugs are still used today.

In The Demon Under the MicroscopeB&N, Thomas Hager introduces Domagk and a host of other characters to bring the story of the discovery alive. Seed caught up with the author to ask him about his work on Demon, his take on big discoveries, and his opinion about what makes a science story a riveting read.

Of all the science stories out there, why is the discovery of sulfa the one you chose to develop into a book?
I stumbled across this story entirely by accident, while I was researching something else. I think what first caught my eye was a researcher who won the Nobel Prize for finding the greatest medicine the world had ever seen, but instead of being honored by his government—this was in Nazi Germany—he was tossed in jail. That got my attention.  The more I researched [Domagk’s] life, the more I saw that his discovery is really a central story of our time. Science is at the core of our culture in so many ways, most of them pretty much unappreciated by most people. And I think this is a core story of twentieth century science, showing not only how science changes lives, but also how politics, money, personal agendas, and luck change science.

Could you give us a quick and dirty synopsis of the book?
Humans through[out] history search for miracles to cure disease. With little to show after 10,000 years of searching, most physicians give up on the idea that chemicals can cure infectious disease. Then, in 1932, a miracle drug is found. The medicine saves millions of lives, including Winston Churchill and FDR’s son. The medicine changes drug laws, drug discovery methods, and medical practice. In the next two decades, deaths from childhood disease drop by 90 percent and average life spans increase 10 years. Discoverer wins Nobel Prize. Discoverer is thrown in jail. Discovery is forgotten.

Did you realize right off the bat that Domagk would be the ‘main character?’
No, I started with the discovery and the main character came later. Gerhard Domagk, who is credited with the discovery (it was actually a team effort), is—on the surface—one of the least interesting characters imaginable: a quiet, uncomplaining family man who worked almost his entire professional life at the same job. But the more I learned about him, the more I learned that a quiet surface can hide a fascinating person.

What was the most difficult part of the writing process?
Research abroad. I spent a week in Germany digging into Domagk’s papers at the Bayer Archives, and another week at the Pasteur Institute in France. I speak neither language. But the archivists did and between their help, the aid of translators, my understanding of the key players and concepts, and the universal language of science—molecular diagrams, numbers, and lab notations—I managed.

What was it like working in the Bayer archives?
A pleasure. I love digging through old papers—the raw material of history. I got to go through all of Domagk’s lab notebooks, page by page—the process of discovery detailed in a series of painstaking experiments. Then I found his unpublished, typewritten memoir in the archive. Corporate archives are underused resources for science historians; Bayer’s is one of the best I’ve been in.

How did you get into science writing? Was it always your goal to do book-length projects?
I started out studying microbiology and immunology, then stopped short of my Ph.D. when I realized I’d rather write about science than do it. Bench science requires a degree of patience I don’t have.  So I studied journalism, then started writing for magazines, doing reporting for some professional journals and writing science pieces for general-circulation magazines. Just making ends meet. Then I was hired as a science trade magazine editor for a business-to-business publisher, and then as an editor at a university. Books came later.  But now I am a committed book writer. The form offers room for telling complex stories.

What would you say are the characteristics of a good science story?
I think the same dynamics apply here as to other literature: sympathetic, compelling characters facing a series of difficulties before finding something important or valuable.  I see long-form science writing as a combination detective tale and child’s adventure story. There is this great dark unknown, and there are these odd characters determined to bring some light into it—discoverers trekking off into the wilderness. There are intriguing clues, and false starts, and competitors, and despair, and—you hope—success.

Has researching and writing this book given you a new perspective on any of the scientific/medical/policy issues of today?
Modern medicine is such a recent phenomenon—it really was born with this discovery in 1932—and yet it is something we tend to take for granted. We are incredibly blessed in many ways; we live in a golden age of victory over the worst infectious diseases—a golden age, by the way, that might be drawing to a close. When you begin to understand how humans dealt with disease just 75 years ago, you begin to realize how lucky we are. But people watch “Grey’s Anatomy” or “ER” and think: This high-powered medicine is the way it is and always will be.  Truth is, modern medicine depends to a great extent on a sort of guerilla warfare with some very tough bugs. The bugs won every time until 1932. Right now, the bugs are beginning to win again. 

Do you see anything on the horizon or in the recent past that’s had an impact at all comparable—in terms of size or any other aspect—to the introduction of sulfa?
I am very interested in Big Discoveries—not theoretical insights, but major hands-on discoveries that have a direct impact on human lives every day. Many of them are little-known. One was sulfa. Another is the subject of the book I’m finishing now, the discovery of the Haber-Bosch system for nitrogen fixation. In case you’ve overlooked that one, it’s the discovery that’s responsible for keeping alive two or three billion people on Earth today; also the source of half the nitrogen in your body. Another in this league, I think, might be the discoveries involved in the long-distance transmission of electricity.  All of these changed human life and human history enormously, yet are—like sulfa and the antibiotic revolution—simply incorporated into daily life in such fundamental ways that they are ignored. Yet they are the result of dedicated researchers devoting their lives to discovery. Those discoverers are heroes. I’m happy to tell their stories.

Thomas Hager’s book, The Demon Under the Microscope, is published by Harmony Books (New York, NY). It was released in Sept. 2006.

Originally published November 5, 2006

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