Invincible Microbe

I love a good plague story. It’s a macabre part of my personality, I suppose. I was struggling through Connie Willis’ wonderful Doomsday Book, hoping to connect to this novel that came to me highly recommended, and as soon as there was a hint of bubonic plague, I was hooked. I thought the movie Contagion was great. A few years ago, I loved Jim Murphy’s award-winning An American Plague, a brilliant expose of the yellow fever epidemic, and so I looked forward to his new book, co-authored with his wife, Alison Blank, about yet another ailment.

Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure, unlike the stories of bubonic plague or yellow fever, is an ongoing story. Until I read this book, I did not realize that tuberculosis is still such a danger all over the world, including the United States. I remember when my son’s Tine test showed positive when he was little, and the doctor said, “Don’t worry. We have antibiotics these days.” Thank goodness that it turned out that Michael was allergic to the Tine test and showed negative for the bubble-under-the-skin test, because we do not, as a matter of fact, have effective antibiotics for every case of tuberculosis even today.

Murphy starts with the history of tuberculosis, which is found in ancient skeletons. The most interesting part of the history, for a nineteenth-century novel enthusiast like me, is discussing the strange attitude that “consumption” was romantic and spiritual. Murphy gives a list of many poets and artists who had consumption, and how the emaciated, thin-skinned look of tuberculosis patients became fashionable. Healthy women even drank lemon juice and vinegar or ate sand in order to attain that coveted pallor. It reminded me of Calvin Klein’s ad campaign a decade or more ago that promoted the similar look of “heroin chic.” I guess even antibiotics can’t cure that kind of insanity.

I am always amazed and frustrated when I read about how long it took for germ theory to be accepted by the medical community. Imagine how many patients died from being bled, when they would have recovered perfectly if the doctor had left them alone! It makes me wonder what we don’t know today that will seem so obvious in the future. Dr. David Agus, oncologist and author of The End of Illness, has expressed his frustration that germ theory is being used in the research and treatment of cancer, although it does not fit. So we still have a long way to go.

The photographs of the huge sanatoriums filled with patients— and then years later empty and decaying— showed how much money was invested in the treatment of tuberculosis patients. No matter how large they were, there was never enough room for everyone. The regimens of treatment in sanatoriums ranged from common-sense to bizarre, but consumption patients and their families were willing to try anything.

The narrative about the tiny, incremental victories toward the cure of this epidemic is often interrupted by setbacks as the bacteria strengthen and resurface, either in the same patient or on another continent. Our hope is that some young person reading this book will be inspired to continue the fight toward eradicating tuberculosis once and for all.

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer or anyone else. I read a library copy of the book.

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