Paul de Kruif:
A Man of Science ... A Man of Letters
was, arguably, one of those great, bristling, energizing, explosive times to
be alive: When Paul de Kruif (Ph.D. 1916) arrived at Michigan in 1912, bacteriology
— the field he studied — and the germ theory of disease were revolutionizing
medical science and practice, much the way the fields of genetics and proteomics
are today. Globally, the winds of war would gather over the decade, taking
de Kruif himself to Army service in France where he rose in rank from first
lieutenant to captain. And freedom flourished in literature and journalism
that dared confront the reality behind the American façade, as works
like Sinclair Lewis' Main Street broke new literary ground.
De Kruif (rhymes with "life") returned to Ann Arbor after World War I to work
with bacteriologist Frederick Novy, but in 1920 joined the Rockefeller Institute
for Medical Research (now Rockefeller University) in New York City where he
was assigned to a study of pathogenic bacteria and the causes of respiratory
infection. As Howard Markel (M.D. 1986), Ph.D., George E. Wantz Professor and
director of the U-M Center for the History of Medicine, writes in his article "Prescribing
Arrowsmith," de Kruif, in just two years, "was fired by the Rockefeller's director,
Simon Flexner, for writing a four-part series of articles on the medical profession
entitled 'Our Medicine Men,' published in The Century magazine." Though
de Kruif's contribution was anonymous, his authorship of the scathing assessment
of medicine in 1920s America as a "mélange of religious ritual, more
or less accurate folklore, and commercial cunning" devoid of "a scientific
approach to disease prevention and treatment" was found out.
The unemployed bacteriologist was introduced to Sinclair Lewis, and de Kruif,
Markel writes, "was officially at liberty to give up the dull drudgery of late
nights in the laboratory for what he perceived to be the exciting life of a
medical journalist." Lewis and de Kruif agreed to collaborate on a medical
"Within weeks," according to Markel, "the two sold the book to Lewis's publishers
Harcourt and Brace and booked passage on a steamship to the West Indies where
they could work without distractions." Arrowsmith was published in
1925 with Sinclair Lewis listed as sole author, though Lewis had told Harcourt
and Brace before finishing the novel, "There's a question as to whether [de
Kruif] won't have contributed more than I shall have."
Indeed Markel writes, "De Kruif was essential to the novel. Nearly all the
scientists, physicians, and medical institutions portrayed in Arrowsmith were
drawn from his experience as a graduate student at the University of Michigan
and, later, as a research investigator at the Rockefeller Institute ... Martin
[Arrowsmith] comes under the spell of an immunology professor named Max Gottleib,
who is an amalgam of de Kruif's mentor at Michigan, the professor of bacteriology
Frederick Novy, and his idol at the Rockefeller, biologist Jacques Loeb."
Arrowsmith won the Pulitzer Prize in 1925, but Lewis turned it down
saying he didn't believe in such awards. Though de Kruif was complicit in not
being listed as co-author in order to preserve the book's sales (in which he
held a 25 percent stake), he nonetheless decried in his memoirs, The Sweeping
Wind , the "brief word of thanks in the acknowledgements for 'technical
De Kruif went on in 1926 to write one of the best-selling and most widely
read science books of all time. Microbe Hunters has been translated
into 18 languages and was the first book with a totally scientific theme to
sell over a million copies. At least two Hollywood movies and a Broadway play
were based on Microbe Hunters , which is credited with inspiring an
entire generation of biological scientists to take up careers in research.
The book, which describes the work of Leeuwenhoek, Spallanzani, Pasteur, Koch
and others, is still in print and available from Amazon.com, where it continues
to attract rave reviews for a timeless relevance that prompted one reviewer
"From the top of today's news, where reports of Ebola and HIV loom large,
comes the story of microbes, bacteria, and how disease shapes our everyday
lives. The superheroes in this scheme are the scientists, bacteriologists,
doctors and medical technicians who wage active war against bacteria. The new
introduction to this book places this history in a thoroughly modern context."
Microbe Hunters was de Kruif's most successful and enduring work,
and it earned him recognition as "America's first great science writer." He
continued writing books and magazine articles and, late in life, moved to Holland,
Michigan, where he died in 1971, leaving behind an impressive body of work
and what is undoubtedly one of the U-M Medical School's most colorful stories.
Howard Markel's "Prescribing Arrowsmith" appeared in The New York Times
Book Review on September 28, 2000.
John Barton contributed to this article.