In August 1891, a young physician named Arthur Conan Doyle made an impulsive decision to travel to Berlin to attend a much-anticipated lecture on tuberculosis by the renowned scientist Robert Koch. The two men had much in common, as author Thomas Goetz points out in his fascinating new book, The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis. Ambitious and frustrated by the confines of small-town medical practice, both were part of the exciting landscape of late-19th-century breakthroughs in science and medicine. Tuberculosis, that ubiquitous scourge of 19th-century life, would play a major role in the lives of both men.
Koch had already found his path from obscurity to fame, beginning with his discovery of Bacillus anthracis in 1876. He then took on wound infections and developed scientific protocols for determining infectious agents. In 1882, firmly ensconced as the head of his own lab, he triumphantly discovered the bacteria that caused tuberculosis.
Koch would eventually be awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1905, five years before his death. Conan Doyle, whose first wife succumbed to tuberculosis, was equally driven and inspired by the process of discovery, though his path took him away from medicine and into the realm of literature.
Goetz weaves together a compelling narrative, chronicling the struggle to find the causes and cures for some of the most ferocious diseases that have stalked humans (and animals) through time: cholera, smallpox, anthrax and tuberculosis. In The Remedy we meet not just Koch and Doyle, but Louis Pasteur, whose public feud with Koch about anthrax helped to energize scientific breakthroughs in both men’s labs.
Perhaps most importantly, The Remedy reminds us of how far we have come, and how much we take for granted in modern medicine. Tuberculosis is still very much with us. Just as we thought we had bested the bacterium, multi-drug-resistant TB has emerged. As Goetz reminds us, in the end, “The bacteria precede us. They outnumber us. And they will outlast us.”