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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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  • Jeffrey
  • Austin Texas, United States
  • 11-09-11

Get it, read it, enjoy it!

Well written, fascinating and the narration was superb. I am a person of the medical professions and greatly appreciated this wonderful history lesson.

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  • Performance
  • Story

Thoroughly enjoyed it

I really enjoyed this book. I only recently in the last few years have the time or inclination to read science/history non-fiction.

I liked the development of the players through time in the different parts they had to play in the search for chemical antibiotics.

My only complaint is that the narrative is not as linear as I might have expected. Perhaps that is a strength for a writer, but for me as a listener, I would rather have had some of the events presented in chronological context rather than moving back and forth in time in relating the smaller details to larger points.

The title is a bit misleading, because we see that this is not just about one doctor, but all the players - but with every good story, there are heroes - and this story has many notable contributors.

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  • Performance
  • Story
  • Chris
  • Germantown, MD, United States
  • 09-22-11


This was a fantastic book. I am going to be entering into nursing school in the Spring and have been devouring any and all things medicine related. This book does not disappoint. Smoothly narrated by Stephen Hoye (quickly becoming one of my favorites for non-fiction) this book takes you on a roller coaster ride of the discovery of sulfa based drugs. In our world of modern medicine it is often forgotten that no too far in the past people died readily from what we consider common place ailments. This will be a book I listen to at least a few more times. I moved on to The Emperor of all Maladies and while I'm only about through the first section am enjoying too.

  • Overall
  • Abigail
  • arlington, VA, United States
  • 05-26-11

A Great Mix of Science and History (GREAT BOOK!)

Hager is a wonderful story teller and this is indeed a fascinating story (read very well by Hoye). Several stories rather, woven together beautifully. I listened to the whole thing non-stop. I believe this book could appeal to those less inclined to non-fiction as well because it is quite exciting and doubles as a war novel in parts. I got very attached to the characters.Any history buff should read this book as well, because our modern perspective makes it difficult to imagine a world where a person could die resulting from a common blister or how modern warfare tactics in WWI and WWII changed the nature of wounds and casualties, killing so many more due to soil getting deep into soldier's wounds. Why were the allies and Hitler both so reluctant to use the first antibiotic (or at least drug with antibiotic effect)? The science is compelling as well. I had always wondered why Flemming had been so concerned about the dangers of the use of antiseptic on the battlefield. How could anti-septic be bad? How do aerobic and anaerobic germs work together to make wounds doubly dangerous? You also get to learn about the birth of the pharmaceutical industry an absolutely fascinating early pioneers of drug creation (not to mention some of the hucksters and snake oil salesmen, those they killed and laws that resulted). I could go on and on but I'm an awful writer so go listen to a good one and GET THIS BOOK!!!

  • Overall

Important and fascinating story

This is a fascinating story of the invention of sulfa drugs. Surprisingly, strep infections were a huge killer throughout history up until the ‘30s. These drugs, along with penicillin are responsible for a significant increase in the average human lifespan.

It's been a year or more since I listened to this. I was really captivated and in conversations I was always talking about the interesting things I learned in this book. I'm sure I will read it again sometime.

  • Overall

Interesting topic, difficult to listen to

The subject and story are engrossing, but it was hard to listen to this narrator's overly dramatic inflections and his misproununciations. I gave up half way through.

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Olga
  • Billerica, MA, United States
  • 10-24-10

Nice reading

Very interesting , a lot of usuful knowledge, but become like a reserach paper time to time, at this points it was easy to get distructed

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  • Eric
  • San bernardino, CA, United States
  • 08-13-10

Excellent, Until the end

This book presented the rise of antibiotics in a well written and attention catching manner. The intertwining of historical events and their interplay with the discovery process was dynamic and engaging. Well worth reading, right until the end.

At the end of the book the author starts bemoaning the doctors of "the Good ol' days" when they would come to your home and stand by watching over you and holding your hand... while you died horribly of a staph infection! Except that he deliberately leaves out the death part. He then goes on to bemoan the loss of such wonderful things as self medication and homeopathy. Yeah I really wish I could try to figure out what will best cure me, what I want to do is research thousands of drugs and make a rational and informed decision while I am suffering from a fever of 104* or I could just take the "magic water" of homeopathy. So listen to the book but skip the epilouge.

  • Overall

Compelling narrative

This is the true story of the most important discovery in the history of medicine, and perhaps the most important discovery in the history of man. Prior to the development of anti-bacterial drugs that work INSIDE the body, not just on the surface like antiseptics such as alcohol do, a person with an internal infection was already dead...unless he was one of the few in a million who got lucky. Some scientists believed it possible to create such an internally acting that would kill bacteria but not kill the human being infected with the bacteria. Others said such a goal was simply mad.

In labs men of science and medicine laboriously searched for something they were not even sure could possibly exist...and they tried endless examples of chemicals, hundreds of variations...and one day something happened and there was an indication that the dream was not just a fantasy.

Among the fascinating details in this story of world-changing discovery is the tale of the German discovery of an antibacterial agent in the 1930s that saved the life of Winston Churchill in the middle of World War II when Churchill developed a nearly fatal infection. And there is the tale of the scientist sent to prison in Nazi Germany for being "too polite" in refusing a Nobel Prize for his scientific discovery....Hitler had declared that no German would accept a Nobel Prize after a Nobel was awarded to an anti-Nazi peace activist. So when the scientist declined the offer of the Nobel Prize but did so in a letter that the Gestapo thought too polite, the scientist was jailed promptly.

Then there is the tale of the sons of two U.S. who died while his dad was president and the other who survived an illness while his dad was president...the two ill sons separated by only a dozen years and by the discovery of effective internal anti-bacterial medicine.

A compelling narrative indeed.

  • Overall

good to know

Very interesting and informative.
Good narration.