Monday, December 10, 2012

Musings on The Invincible Microbe

Murphy, Jim and Alison Blank. 2012. The Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure. New York: Clarion.

The minute I saw this book, I knew that I would read it, not because I am a fan of nonfiction and Jim Murphy, but for personal reasons.  While my mother would often tell me stories of what it was like to be a child during WWII, my stepfather was older.  He lived what I considered to be a fascinating, history-book life. He was an orphan. He remembered the Great Depression.   He was a runaway. He was a "runner" on Wall Street.  He had tuberculosis.  He recalled being forced to march outside in the cold New York winter wearing nothing but a t-shirt and underpants, a common aspect of a patient's "curing" regimen.  I can only imagine that a poor orphan boy's regimen was harsher than most. To this day, I cannot look at a sepia-tinged photo of poor scantily clad children in the snow without thinking of my stepfather.  The girls on the cover of The Invincible Microbe, "curing" outside on a porch, may be smiling in the photo, but I don't believe for a minute that it was by choice. To the end of his days, my stepfather loved rich foods and warm temperatures - small wonder.

So, to me growing up, TB was a thing of the past - a disease like polio, generally eradicated and of no concern to me.  Then came the late 1980's and 1990's.  My sister lived in Manhattan, and lo and behold, tuberculosis was suddenly a topic of discussion again.  There was an outbreak in the City. She was worried.  So to me, tuberculosis was then an urban thing, of no concern to me, except where my sister was concerned.  My sister moved away from the City, and I thought little of it again ... until my children were born.  Then to me, TB was "the bubble test," and I thought little of it, except that it seemed to be an easier test than the "tine test" I remembered from childhood, and I was thankful that my kids were protected...

or so I thought, until I read The Invincible Microbe.

The Invincible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure, tells the story of TB from its known beginning, in prehistoric times, through the days of magical, prayerful, and deadly "cures," until today, when TB is still a scourge in five areas of the world (Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, The Philippines, Swaziland, Vietnam) and is only as far away from you as a plane ride.

Thoroughly researched, sourced and indexed, with numerous photographs, The Invincible Microbe is a chronological look at the Tuberculosis germ, containing first-hand accounts (including a poem written by Robert Louis Stevenson en route to a sanatorium in Saranac Lake), period advertising, and quotes from scientific journals and other sources. It incorporates both the scientific and social aspects of infectious disease, answering such questions as:

How were breakthroughs in identification and treatment of the disease achieved? How did the medical community vet new procedures and ideas?  How was public health policy created? How did the germ mutate to survive?  How did Tuberculosis attack the human body?  How was it spread?  Who decided which patients received treatment and which do not?

Sadly, these questions are still being answered, and to date, Tuberculosis has no cure.

Comprehensive and engrossing, this is a book that will appeal to ages 10 to adult.

Want to know more about TB?  Check the Tuberculosis section of the World Health Organization (WHO) website.


  1. This looks fascintating! Living in Japan as an adult I have a very different view of TB than I did when I lived in the west. It is definitely still an issue here, although not as bad as in the Philippines. Every school and employer is legally obligated to provide x-rays (in a bus!) to check for TB every year. Since every child is vaccinated, they can't do the prick test. My employers are at a loss to what to do with me as I have never been vaccinated!
    I definitely want to read this. I love microhistories anyway, and this is such an important subject.

  2. Ooh, I’ll definitely have to look for this one. Thanks for the review.


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