Today, I'm happy to review The Remedy, a fascinating look into the quest to cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz.
I had an amazing time reading this book, and am so grateful Gotham sent me a review copy!
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published April 3rd 2014 by Gotham
Format read: ARC via publisher
Synopsis via Goodreads:
In 1875, tuberculosis was the deadliest disease in the world, accountable for a third of all deaths. A diagnosis of TB—often called consumption—was a death sentence. Then, in a triumph of medical science, a German doctor named Robert Koch deployed an unprecedented scientific rigor to discover the bacteria that caused TB. Koch soon embarked on a remedy—a remedy that would be his undoing.
When Koch announced his cure for consumption, Arthur Conan Doyle, then a small-town doctor in England and sometime writer, went to Berlin to cover the event. Touring the ward of reportedly cured patients, he was horrified. Koch’s "remedy" was either sloppy science or outright fraud.
But to a world desperate for relief, Koch’s remedy wasn’t so easily dismissed. As Europe’s consumptives descended upon Berlin, Koch urgently tried to prove his case. Conan Doyle, meanwhile, returned to England determined to abandon medicine in favor of writing. In particular, he turned to a character inspired by the very scientific methods that Koch had formulated: Sherlock Holmes.
Capturing the moment when mystery and magic began to yield to science,The Remedy chronicles the stunning story of how the germ theory of disease became a true fact, how two men of ambition were emboldened to reach for something more, and how scientific discoveries evolve into social truths.
Over 140 years ago, ‘modern medicine’ was a field of largely unchallenged truths, accepted by all, that had not evolved or improved in centuries. Dr. Robert Koch would change all of that. Koch’s attempts to convince a close-minded medical community that bacterium and pathogens did, in fact exist (known as wee animalcules in those days), would lead him to an historical triumph: the development of a scientific methodology. This methodology was designed by Koch to defend himself against the attacks on his theories by his peers. By demonstrating cause and effect, and ensuring that his experiments could be recreated by others, he not only protected his bold pronouncements about infections, transmission of diseases, and germ theory, but he gifted to the world a practical model to test new scientific theories and revolutionized all of science, especially medical science.
Koch’s legacy would seem to be fated for greatness. However, in a cruel trick of fate, Koch’s efforts to find a cure, a remedy, for the scourge of tuberculosis would become his undoing. In the process, Koch’s fall from grace, the result of his own scientific methodology being wielded against him by his contemporaries, would inspire a young British physician to write tales of consulting Detective and his Doctor friend, who used science and deductive logic to expose fraudsters and capture criminals. Robert Koch had fallen, but the great Sherlock Holmes would rise, significantly changing the literary world forever.
The Remedy is a tale of interesting men, living in a world on the verge of revolutionary changes, who would serve as catalysts for human progress. They shaped a new world order and yet still found themselves at the mercy of those most human of life’s experiences: mortality, pride, vanity, ego, and love.
Things that worked:
Tuberculosis was a particularly nasty disease. It would often lie dormant inside a host body for years at times, before attacking the body producing a host of symptoms. Consumption, as it was referred to, would often go misdiagnosed as a different malady. Today, the world knows better: tuberculosis was likely the leading cause of death for humanity for many centuries. The wee animalcules that killed off generations of our fellow humans would never have been discovered, had it not been for Mr. Koch. The Remedy wisely demonstrates the impact of tuberculosis on the body, its impact on our race as a whole, and the complete of failure of that era’s ‘modern medicine’ to diagnose the disease, let alone develop treatments or preventative measures to combat its spread.
Goetz’s writing style
For such potentially dry subjects: medicine, science, and history, Goetz has imbued this work with a great rush of energy. Each chapter flows well into the next. The reader constantly wishes to continue turning the page and devour this book in a single sitting. Goetz wisely made sure to avoid the drowning this story in too many facts, statistics, and formulas, using these features instead to reinforce the narrative. He also made sure to focus on the human elements of our protagonists, Messrs. Koch and Doyle. Their trials and tribulations help to maintain The Remedy’s enjoyable reading style.
In some respects, this reviewer found The Remedy to be akin to the great film Twelve Angry Men, in which human emotion and basic procedure intertwine to produce a work of great resonance for the audience. It’s an odd comparison, I grant you, but in both cases, we see some of the best parts of humanity, our courage, convictions, and morality, do battle with the worst of humanity, our stubbornness, egos, and emotions, in a contest to determine what kind of world we will live in.
One of the most apparent themes in The Remedy is that of human fallacy. From the medical community’s stubbornness in challenging its own prevailing theories, to Robert Koch’s single-minded determination to cure tuberculosis, to Arthur Conan Doyle’s resentment to the popularity of his literary creation, human beings are portrayed as being quite flawed by Mr. Goetz.
This was a wise decision. It helps to reinforce how difficult scientific progress can be when it is human beings who are tasked with making such discoveries and affirming their results. Ego and shame can infect the process just as easily as a pathogen can infect and living body, corrupting the results. We saw this with Robert Koch’s attempts to locate his remedy for consumption. He abandoned his scientific methodology and was unwilling to challenge his own assumptions, causing a false hope to be foisted upon an unsuspecting populace.
While Koch’s own legacy was irreparably damaged, it was science itself that was used to prove his remedy a failure. Koch’s scientific methodology held strong through this challenging period and a new system of verification, testing, and analysis was created that helped ensure the end of false hopes, false cures, and false remedies. Human imperfection may still exist, but it no longer holds the same sway in the fields of modern medicine and science. The world owes Robert Koch a debt, not for curing tuberculosis, but for creating the conditions in which a real remedy could ultimately be discovered and proved.