The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis

I started this book the day I finished A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes, and again it’s another book finished just in time. I can’t keep this up, though, as the next one is pretty long, I’m worried I wont finish it in time. Especially since I have an interview today and starting a new job will severely cut back on my reading time, especially if the commute is shorter.

In any event. this was a fascinating book that ties in well with our current SARS-CoV-2 epidemic. The book gives a weaving of biographies between the world-famous creator of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle, and the little-remembered recipient of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, Heinrich Hermann Robert Koch.

The story of Koch is an interesting one. He’s a medical doctor who came out of nowhere to revolutionize the scientific method and usher in the age of the microbe. While most Americans know who Charles and the late David Koch are, Robert Koch is no relation and should not be seen in the same light, though ironically, as the chemist Louis Pasteur was Robert Koch’s greatest rival, it’s somewhat ironic the American Kochs of Dutch ancestry also got their start as chemists.

What’s most astounding, though, is how much hubris Koch built up and his animosity toward Pasteur. Was it pure one upmanship, or something deeper? It’s clear Koch resented the French given his upbringing in Prussia and the Franco-Prussian War. I can only speculate that had something to do with it.

It’s a pity because, after all, they were both adherents to germ theory. They both had their detractors in the Anti-Vaccine League and the groups opposed to animal cruelty. Even Florence Nightingale was allied against him and all of science. It’s a pity even today people have trouble understanding vaccines train the body so something worse doesn’t befall them because the body is prepared. They didn’t understand immunology then, or herd immunity, but today, what’s the excuse?

One other sad fact is, it seems, Tuberculin is the perfect vaccine against Consumption. It is, after all, the same basic substance that Pasteur and company used for his Anthrax and Rabies vaccines. There’s no reason Tuberculin shouldn’t have worked unless, Mycobacterium tuberculosis is a bacterium which defeats the immune system? Is it more like AIDS in that respect? Still, his trying to profit from it made the fact it didn’t work all the more disgraceful.

If one disgrace wasn’t bad enough, when Koch doubled down on the bovine tuberculosis not being the same as the human form, he only dug himself into a hole further. Surely, as he and his lab investigated Bacillus anthracis, they knew the same bacteria could have different forms throughout its productive cycle. Why couldn’t he see that the different shapes of Mycobacterium tuberculosis in cattle was the same as the form in humans and thus was a vector for transmission?

The book also gives the story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, MD. How the two are connected in a pantomime of try-fail in trying to meet Koch only to write a scathing piece about the failed cure Tuberculin. Beyond that, the two had very little to do with each other and thus the book really stretched its mandate when it included Doyle with Koch.

Nonetheless, It was fascinating reading about Doyle and his caring for Touie while still maintaining another woman in the wings, always under chaperone. One wonders how Touie got Consumption but as it was common back then I don’t think its connection to the main theme of the book is sustained. Still, kind of interesting how Doyle prepared for Touie’s demise in the most pragmatically masculine way. I don’t know if I approve even with the maternal and sibling supervision.

It’s also interesting that Doyle gave up the rights to the first Sherlock Holmes story. And yet, he hated Holmes so much he had to kill him off after the second series of serials in The Strand. Also interesting that he only wrote four novels and that one was inspired as a competition between Doyle and Oscar Wylde. It’s wonderful, though, we got both and The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Hound of the Baskervilles for that bet.

It’s sad, though, that Doyle was so into spiritualism. And it’s also a pity that despite his belief in the Cottingley Fairies, the author never once mentions Harry Houdini‘s attempts to debunk the rampant fraud of the day.

One thing that was great to see was how William Gillette inspired Doyle to resurrect Holmes and give us more tales from 221B Baker Street. And it’s amazing how Gillette’s role gave us the deerstalker hat now so iconic and the “Elementary, dear Watson”, even though that never appears in Doyle’s writing. Gillette was indeed a fascinating man and it’s a pity he only rarely appeared in moving pictures. He did leave a fascinating legacy. Near where I grew up, in East Haddam, Connecticut, rests the castle that Gillette built. I’ve been there many times and it’s quite fun to see in person.

One last point I’d like to make is how cool it is that Koch’s colleagues and their families invented Agar Plates and Petri Dishes to grow bacteria. And, most of all, Koch was a microscopist in the tradition of Sir Frankie Crisp and was a pioneer of Microphotography. Even Sherlock Holmes, as conceived by Doyle, was a microscopist.

The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis
The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis

Thank you all for reading. It took me forever to compile this from my notes but I’m excited to begin The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos. Until next time my sapiosexual friends.