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Publisher's Summary

The Nazis discovered it. The Allies won the war with it. It conquered diseases, changed laws, and single-handedly launched the era of antibiotics. This incredible discovery was sulfa, the first antibiotic medication. In The Demon Under the Microscope, Thomas Hager chronicles the dramatic history of the drug that shaped modern medicine.

Sulfa saved millions of lives, among them, Winston Churchill's and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr.'s, but its real effects have been even more far reaching. Sulfa changed the way new drugs were developed, approved, and sold. It transformed the way doctors treated patients. And it ushered in the era of modern medicine. The very concept that chemicals created in a lab could cure disease revolutionized medicine, taking it from the treatment of symptoms and discomfort to the eradication of the root cause of illness.

A strange and vibrant story, The Demon Under the Microscope illuminates the colorful characters, corporate strategy, individual idealism, careful planning, lucky breaks, cynicism, heroism, greed, hard work, and central (though mistaken) idea that brought sulfa to the world. This is a fascinating scientific tale with all the excitement and intrigue of a great suspense novel.

©2006 Thomas Hager (P)2006 Tantor Media, Inc.

Critic Reviews

"Highly entertaining." (Publishers Weekly)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings


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  • Overall

A fantastic book

If you like history, science and the step by step retelling of discovery this book is for you. The author deftly weaves together events across time and from sites around the world to give a cohesive vision of illness caused by infection, war, disease and transformation brought about by science. At times heart wrenching and disturbing but an amazing read nonetheless. Excellent!

42 of 43 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Great Book!!!!!

OK. This purports to be the story of the development of sulfa drugs. Boring, you say? That's what I thought. I purchased it on the strengths of the other reviews. And, glad I did. This is the most intriguing and interesting story I've read this year. Extremely well told and narrated.

It is actually the history of the treatment (or lack thereof) of bacterial infections over the years. I'll bet you didn't know Calvin Coolidge had a son who died because a blister on his foot got infected? Or that Doctors used phenols to treat a minor medical procedure on Queen Victoria? Or that the Nazis prevented the most brilliant scientists of their time from getting a Nobel prize?

At times I got a bit confused when the author backed up to explain some historical or preceding event. I rather think that had more to do with the fact that this is an audio book and you need to pay careful attention.

Overall, though, I really must give this story my highest ratings and would recommend it to the layman and scientist alike.

53 of 57 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

A pleasure in listening

It is a great pleasure to read a science author who knows both how to write and understands the subject. Thomas Hager is one such author. His manages to take both well know discoveries and little know episodes and weave them together into a story that is informative and entertaining. His descriptive writing is excellent, a rare talent in a writer who understands science.

The first part of the book does some jumping back and forth in time mostly to great effect as he reacquaints us with the discovery of the germ theory and early serum medicine. (Although I found that every once in a while he gives away the punch line before he tells the story.)

The second half of the book gives a fascinating and unique glimpse into Germany from before WWI to after WWII when the discovery of the magic bullet sulfa revolutionized the foundations of modern medicine.

If you, like me, enjoy both history and science, this is an exciting story that is well worth reading or listening.

43 of 47 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story
  • Snoodely
  • Santa Barbara, CA United States
  • 02-01-12

Almost like a novel!

Whodathunk that a history book could keep one so enthralled? "The Demon Under the Microscope" tells a fascinating story that will not bore you, even though it actually happened. (Sorry ... I never liked history classes.) Those of us who grew up after the advent of antibiotics have no idea how microbes used to wreak deadly havoc on humans. This well-written book shows us how people suffered and died from diseases now completely curable ??? pneumonia, gangrene, and tuberculosis, for example ??? and how dedicated scientists gradually discovered the critters that caused those diseases, then concocted the chemical remedies to defeat them. Doing so required such painstaking, trial-and-error guesswork and such (usually) fruitless, discouraging experimentation, that one wonders how these investigators persisted. I recommend "The Demon Under the Microscope" to anyone interested in medicine, even if you don't like history.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Allen
  • Fort Collins, CO, USA
  • 11-24-06

An excellent book, read well

This is one of the better general-interest science history books I've read or listened to. Hager takes a story that crosses international borders, contains stories from politics, military history, and organic chemistry and presents them in a way that is accessible to the lay person but satifying to an expert. He skillfully weaves the threads of this story together to make listening to this audiobook compelling and difficult to turn off.

40 of 46 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Well done ...

I really enjoyed this book and the author's approach to an historical account of how the battle against disease began, and how it continues. I do have a science background, but not in medicine and am even less knowledgeable about history. I found myself recalling the names of tools or procedures used in biology, such as the Petri dish named after a German student, as the author gave an intricate account of the evolution of modern science.
What I really enjoyed about this book is the how the author describes the exhaustive efforts of scientist and researchers in the earlier part of last century; those who pushed the creative genius of mankind to its limit to find cures for the deadliest diseases known to man. I could not imagine having the strength, courage, faith, not to mention intelligence to discover something that barely existed as an idea at that time. The author was amazing at capturing how the pain and suffering of physicians who lost so many to disease, and how their love for their fellow man were the primary motivations which made the miraculous discoveries possible. With money, prestige, and self-gratification other motivators, the less admirable qualities of men were also told. This was a very well written book read by a terrific narrator that you are sure to enjoy!

26 of 30 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

Infectious read

I can hardily recommend to anyone interested in a fascinating historical read. I very strongly recommend to clinicians and researchers. It is principally the story of Nobel Laureate Gerhard Domagk and the effects of his research on those around him, medicine, counties, industry, war, and peace. I find it interesting that the product summary does not mention him. A well researched and presented story including the occasional semi relevant tangent. I might caution the faint of heart that there are some graphic descriptions early in the book.

Hoye's narration was a pleasure to listen to, in spite of the occasional mispronunciations. He has an inflection in his speech that reminds me of Al Pachino which some might find problematic, but I found it to be quite smooth.

20 of 23 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Performance
  • Story

Medical history's biggest step forward...

I have a strep throat today and the Dr. gave me a Z-pack. My Aunt had a strep throat in the 30's and died. This book follows the development of the first antibiotics... the Sulfa drugs, by Gerhard Domagk and peers between WWI and WWII. Although, of greatest interest to history buffs and medical sorts, it really is an interesting read. It reminds me of "The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lack" or "The Ghost Map" where the plot sounds dull... but you just can't put it down. The book is broad: you will be inside the trenches during WWI, in the laboratory killing mice, being bombed in WWII and in the states killing people with tonics and watching greedy decisions made in an attempt to put competing drug manufacturing companies out of business. The book travels all over... but always comes back to poor Gerhard who finally gets his Nobel Award. The reader is wonderful.

9 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

A Fascinating Tale, Well Told

This is an amazing story. In hard copy I'd call it a page turner. I often found myself annoyed that I had arrived at work and would have to wait for my commute home to continue the story.

The diligence and perseverance of the scientists searching for a cure for bacterial infections is humbling. The fact that the German dye companies didn't realize for several years that sulfa was the dog rather than the tail in their complicated dye-based formulations is a classic example of myopia. And the story of how the FDA came into existence due to the excesses of the patent drug makers is something few people know.

However, this story is not only interesting; it is very relevant to today's world. With more and more bacteria developing immunity to our miracle drugs, it is sobering to remember that we may be heading back to a time when people routinely died from an infected wound or a tooth abscess. The stories of the pre-sulfa world should give us pause.

19 of 23 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

The Demon under the Microscope

This is one of the most absorbing stories that I have come across in quite a while. The impact the subject of the story has on each of our lives today is hard to comprehend. You will definitely have more insight into the way drug companies work and how research and development has elvoved over time. The power of drugs to heal and hurt and why the two must be balanced comes to life vividly. Highly recommend.

14 of 17 people found this review helpful