Friday, April 25, 2014

Book review and comment: The Remedy (Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Pasteur)

The Remedy, by Thomas Goetz.   An offbeat view of history that brings together Robert Koch, Conan Doyle, Pasteur, and the quest to understand tuberculosis in the 1890s.  For my review, click the link below the picture.

Bringing the Past to Life
In this book, Thomas Goetz has done a remarkable job of bringing the past to life. The book focuses on Arthur Conan Doyle, a physician and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Robert Koch, a brilliant but difficult man who was one of the great medical scientists of the 1880s and 1890s. (Koch won the Nobel Prize in 1905).

Koch and Doyle

Koch had a number of undisputed achievements in pushing forward the science of medical microbiology, including basic work on the "germ theory" of disease; Koch's Postulates, which are four rules for determining the truth of a hypothesis about a causal microbe; key discoveries in microscopy and bacterial culture; and the use of animal models to investigate disease. Koch also went off the ranch a few times, such as believing that a crude extract of tuberculosis bacteria could cure the disease. (The material, today called tuberculin, might have offered some value for tests or inoculations but not for treatment). Arthur Conan Doyle, a not very successful English physician with a writing habit, traveled to Berlin and was among the first to write up Koch's tuberculin treatment as a failure. (Doyle's article, in a journal called Review of Reviews, can be found online for free...try this or this).

Thomas Goetz tells everything well: The science story, the public fervor, the biographies of the men, and interesting asides such as the fact that Doyle was the founder of the "serial short story." This literary form had the continued thread found in serialized novels, with the convenience of a self-contained package that doesn't actually require reading the prior and subsequent stories. Students of innovation may find this a striking example of a novel idea that is hatched by mixing and matching two existing ideas.

Robert Koch as the Founder of Strategy Consulting

For me, Robert Koch is the founder of strategy consulting. He took a fuzzy, hard to understand area, and
proposed some clear, memorable, and so-what, imperfect, rules for navigating and framing the ideas. (These are Koch's Four Postulates - check Wikipedia or Google.) Come up with four, or five, or seven key questions that outline the shape of knowledge in a field of endeavor, and if you're the first to do it, it may preserve your name for a long time.

Koch and Louis Pasteur Yell At Each Other Alot

A third figure, not quite as central to the book, is Louis Pasteur, who had a long series of feuds with Robert Koch. Fights between scientists - in fact, even from the late 1600's, let alone the more familiar 1890s - have often been hostile and Koch/Pasteur were no exception. We forget, too, that patents and profits are not a recent invitation, but were battled from the early 1800s forwards, and certainly by some of the great inventors, from Morse to Bell to Edison, but also scientists like Pasteur.

Taking it Further

Those who'd like to go further might enjoy Laboratory Disease: Robert Koch's Medical Bacteriology by Christoph Gradmann (not as dry as it sounds!), or The Private Science of Louis Pasteur by the Gerald Geison, both of which take a bottom-up approach to each scientist's discoveries and his working style. If you like "The Remedy" because of the interplay between science and society, you might try Bruno Latour's The Pasteurization of France.

Thomas Goetz's Book Website here.

For a Ted Talk by Goetz, here.
For a new website/company being set up by Goetz, IODINE, here.