If you ask someone born after World War II about sulfa drugs, you'll likely get a blank stare. Ask the same question of someone born before the war, however, and it's a different story. That's because while the reign of sulfanilamide and its numerous variants was brief a mere decade before other, more effective drugs emerged it changed the world in a way no one then alive will ever forget. As recounted in Thomas Hager's first book, The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug, the introduction of sulfa drugs meant that for the first time in history a person with a bacterial infection could expect not just hope, but reasonably expect to live. Who was responsible for this miracle cure? As with most great scientific and technological advances, it is difficult to credit a single person. So many doctors, chemists and industrialists contributed to the discovery that even a comprehensive history like Hager's can't give every one his or her due. But one name does stand out Gerhard Domagk, a German doctor and medical researcher who watched too many soldiers die of gangrenous infection in World War I. His dedication to finding a cure, coupled with the work of talented chemists and the financing of one the world's largest chemical companies (Bayer), resulted in the earth-shaking breakthrough at Christmas 1932. For this great humanitarian work, Domagk was awarded the 1939 Nobel Prize in medicine, which the Nazis prevented him from accepting. Soon, the second great war in a generation swept Europe but this time, wounded soldiers and civilians knew they had a fighting chance.
The tale of sulfa drugs, credited with saving hundreds of thousands of lives, is told by Hager in a thorough, yet highly readable style that grips the reader from the first paragraph. It is a story of dedication, luck, tragedy and triumph that's still relevant today. Chris Scott writes from Nashville.